Netherlands 3-0 Italy. The Azzurri’s adventure at Euro 2008 could not have started worse. 3 goals like the 3 words which can be used to describe today’s match: offside, counter-attack, and defense (or lack thereof).
Why offside? The pivotal point of the match (Italy’s poor performance aside) was without question the controversial non-call on Ruud van Nistelrooy’s opening offside goal. Why counter-attack? The Dutch were absolutely lethal at scoring, right after their opponents had failed to do so: two out of the three goals were on a counter. Why defense? The goals conceded by Buffon today (offside excepted) can in large part be blamed on the Azzurri defense, a defense which at its first test without iconic leader Fabio Cannavaro, completely fell apart under the Oranje pressure.
At the end of the day, today’s crushing 3-0 defeat hangs like a big sword of Damocles directly over Roberto Donadoni’s head. The next match vs. Romania will be “do or die” for Italy. And yes, it’s only match 2 of the tournament.
Tactically, there were two big question marks in Donadoni’s match eve: who to pick for his midfield and who to pick for the defense. Regarding the former, the Don stayed faithful to his pro-AC Milan convictions and decided to opt for Massimo Ambrosini (over Giallorossi Alberto Aquilani/Daniele De Rossi). Ambro had been on fire during training lately and with the added contribution of Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, would form a defensive dam in the center designed to contain the creativity & verve of the Oranje’s playmaking trio (Van der Vaart, Sneijder, and Kuyt). Regarding the defense, the blow inflicted by Fabio Cannavaro’s injury still wasn’t fully digested, but common sense seemed to point out towards Andrea Barzagli‘s and Marco Materazzi‘s confirmation (hoping that Matrix would strike a line through his mediocre 2007-08 campaign with Inter, and return to his WC2006 goal-scoring form).
At least that was the plan.
Things started off rather well for the Azzurri, who only took 3 minutes into the game to send a clear message to van der Sar & colleagues: we’re out here, we’re hungry. Antonio Di Natale got rid of his marker on the right wing and was in a good position to provide danger, but his cross towards Luca Toni was too deep and ran harmlessly across goal. 10 minutes later, LucaBomber put his 1m94 to work and got his noggin to a Rino Gattuso cross. Wide. If only Toni had seen Di Natale’s run in the middle, completely unmarked…
That, essentially was the last bit of evidence that Italy was “alive” in the first half. The ensuing half-hour until the break was all to the benefit of Marco Van Basten’s men, able at exploiting a greater ball possession and the speed & technique of their wing players. In minute 18, a through ball by Kuyt for Van Nistelrooy found the Real Madrid man in the clear, but the presence of Buffon destabilized the Dutch striker just enough to send him to the side and mistime his cross. Had he tumbled to the ground (Buffon had a slight touch rushing out), the Dutch would have had serious claims to a penalty. 5 minute later, RVN was into the heart of the action again, as he narrowly missed connecting with a Wesley Sneijder free-kick (Materazzi was key in deflecting the ball just enough). Italy were under pressure.
Too much pressure. In minute 26, the goal: free-kick from the left to the far post, Buffon punched the ball (falling over Panucci in the process) and the ball arrived to Van Bronckhorst. The ex-Barcelona wing-back went for the half-volley, and found Ruud Van Nistelrooy comfortably placed at the second post to deflect the ball in. The only problem? RVN was a good 2-3 yards offside and no, Panucci wasn’t keeping him on (not by lying motionless a good 6 yards out of the field). Regardless, 1-0 Netherlands.
5 minute later, another turning point of the match: a corner-kick by Pirlo found a deflection in the box, and was saved off the line by Van Bronckhorst. The Dutch defender was having quite a day today: assist provider, goal saver and (as we will see later), also goalscorer. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, the counter: Holland in possession and out to the opposite side, Van Bronckhorst (him again) provided a long cross towards Kuyt (left to right), and the Liverpool striker’s re-directed header turned into a great assist for Wesley Sneijder (completely forgotten by the center-back pair). The birthday boy (turning 24 today) offered himself the perfect gift, and got his foot on the Oranje’s second goal of the game. 2-0 Netherlands, the Azzurri’s morale in tatters. 2-0 could even have become 3-0 before the half ended, had Gigi Buffon’s miraculous foot save on RVN (through on goal once again, forgotten by Materazzi) not kept today’s Azzurri semi-hopes alive.
Outplayed and outscored (albeit with some rather bad luck on the first goal), some drastic changes were necessary at the break for the Azzurri to turn this one around. Instead, Roberto Donadoni confirmed his 11-man line and operated the first substitution only 9 minutes into the half. A rather lost Marco Materazzi left his place to Fabio Grosso, thus shifting Zambrotta to the right side and moving Christian Panucci to the center. A change which brought back some stability in the Azzurri back-line, if only for a short while. However what was really lacking in the Azzurri today (unbelievable as it may seem) was some fighting spirit, an inherent desire to say “we will not stand by this scoreline”. Zambrotta’s blast wide in the 53rd (after a lovely dribble on Kuyt) and Toni’s weak effort in the 60th were signs some new life had to be injected into the Azzurri attack.
Trying to find just that, Donadoni inserted Alessandro Del Piero (on for Di Natale) and then later Antonio Cassano (on for Camoranesi). The Juve captain immediately got into the match, dribbling, shooting, obtaining fouls. His good effort in minute 66 was saved by Van der Sar, then Cassano gave his contribution by looping a perfect ball for Luca Toni just five minutes later, setting up the Bayern giant completely in the clear. Incredibly, LucaBomber failed the impossible and made a mess of his shot (over and wide). It seemed as though Italy were “back in it”, if not by the scoreline at least mentally. Edwin van der Sar had to summon his best goalkeeping talents to keep a Fabio Grosso 6-yard finish and a 25m Andrea Pirlo free-kick out of his goal.
The previous 10 minutes were only a glimpse though, because the Dutch midfield was just having a field day on the other end, cutting through the Azzurri defense like butter. Stemming from Pirlo’s parried free-kick, the Dutch counter-attack proved once again lethal for Gigi Buffon: the Italian nº1 did what he could on Kuyt’s mid-range effort, but on the ensuing cross Giovanni van Bronckhorst was left all alone (again) by the back-line, and comfortably added insult to injury to the defence’s nightmarish night. 3-0 Netherlands, that’s a wrap folks!
|GOALSCORERS: 26’ Van Nistelrooy (N), 31’ Sneijder (N), 79’ van Bronckhorst (N)|
|NETHERLANDS (4-2-3-1): Van der Sar – Ooijer, Boulahrouz (77’ Heitinga), Mathijsen, van Bronckhorst – de Jong, Engelaar – Kuyt (91’ Afellay), van der Vaart, Sneijder – van Nistelrooy (70’ van Persie). (bench: Timmer, Stekelemburg, de Zeeuw, Robben, Melchiot, Bouma, de Cler, Huntelaar, Vennegoor). Coach: Marco van Basten|
|ITALY (4-3-3): Buffon – Panucci, Barzagli, Materazzi (54’ Grosso), Zambrotta – Gattuso, Pirlo, Ambrosini – Camoranesi (75’ Cassano), Toni, Di Natale (64’ Del Piero) (bench: De Sanctis, Amelia, Chiellini, Gamberini, De Rossi, Perrotta, Aquilani, Quagliarella, Borriello). Coach: Roberto Donadoni.|