It’s fair to say that the third day of Euro 2008 didn’t necessarily provide us with entertaining soccer for the duration of both games (certainly not in the first one), but the results of those games were perhaps the most unexpected of the tournament so far. The favorites had won each of the previous four games in the competition, a trend that didn’t continue today.
You could’ve slept through the Romania-France game, which ended 0-0, and not missed anything. France had two decent chances all game, both to Karim Benzema from outside the 18-yard box, and the Lyon striker missed well wide on one and sent a weak dribbler to Romanian goalkeeper Bogdan Lobon? on the other. Those poor efforts capped a very mediocre (at best) game for Benzema, and his strike partner, Nicholas Anelka, was invisible for large chunks of the match before being taken off in the 72nd minute, six minutes before Benzema was also replaced. France clearly missed Thierry Henry up front, a player with plenty of pace and creativity to stretch the stout Romanian defense, but also someone who would undoubtedly bury one of the half-chances mucked up by Benzema.
Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery looked lively at times, but those times were few and far between. Too often they looked content to play the ball back into the middle instead of running at the Romanian full-backs one-on-one and trying to get to the endline.
Malouda and Ribery’s play was a microcosm of France’s performance — too conservative, too afraid to send numbers forward, and too willing to play not to lose instead of playing to win. If the object of the game was to see how many short, square passes a team could complete, France certainly would’ve won, but that isn’t the case.
To be fair, Romania weren’t exactly world-beaters on the attacking end either, but they did at least make a concerted effort to test the aging French defenders. The problem with that from Romania’s point of view is that they don’t have enough team speed to dribble by anyone, and the French back line are as solid as it comes in terms of their spacing and positioning to help one another out when necessary. They are also good at winning balls in the air, and that took away from the effectiveness of Romania’s set pieces, their strength.
After about the 70th minute, Romania began to sit 9 and 10 men behind the ball in an effort to get out of there with a draw. The game ground to a standstill at that point, with Romania throwing up a wall 35 yards from their goal while letting France have all the possession they wanted outside of that range. When France lost control of the ball, Romania was happy to blast it back up the field and let a lone striker chase it down. They didn’t record a single shot on goal (although they had three shots blocked), but France only put one shot on target so Romania accomplished what they set out to do — take a positive result into their second game.
In the second match of the day, won 3-0 by Holland, Italy just didn’t show up. Period. Italy didn’t show up. Holland completely outclassed their opponent and deserved their victory beyond any shadow of a doubt.
It was the Oranje’s first win over Italy in 30 years, and it marked an emphatic end to the Italian dominance over the low-lying nation. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s cool one touch finish from close range put the Dutch ahead in the 26th minute (no, Andy Gray, he was not offside), and his teammate at Real Madrid, Wesley Snejider, finished off a brilliant counter-attack five minutes later with a high, side-footed tap-in past Gianluigi Buffon. Italy was fortunate to make it to halftime only down 2-0.
In the second half, Holland continued to put on the pressure and that allowed Italy to stay in the game. The Italians were able to generate a few chances when they caught Holland out on an attack, as they weren’t content with their two-goal lead. Holland put the game away for good a little more than ten minutes before full time just after Andrea Pirlo’s freekick was saved by Edwin van der Sar. The ensuing counter-attack led to a 3-on-3 for Holland. Dirk Kuyt, who also had a very good game, wound up with the ball in a dangerous position on the right side of the box. His perfectly weighted cross was slammed home by Giovanni van Bronckhorst, one of the last people you’d expect to score with his head.
Italy’s age showed against the faster, more dynamic Dutch side, which Roberto Donadoni may have underestimated a little bit. He didn’t make any adjustments at halftime, either tactically or personnel-wise. He continued to use three central midfielders against a team that employed five midfielders and was geared around wing play. Italy had no answer for Kuyt and Snejider, and the previously little-known Orlando Engelaar had an excellent game from his holding role. Holland’s back line, which had been criticized by many coming into this tournament (myself included) and labeled as the team’s weakness, stifled Luca Toni all game long and Alessandro del Piero when he came in.
Holland is now in a great position atop the group, and conversely Italy is at the bottom and looking up. The Italians do have one positive to take out of today’s action — France drew with Romania, leaving Italy with just a point to make up to advance.
Group C Standings (after one game):
1. Holland (3 points, +3 goal differential)
2. Romania (1 pt, 0)
3. France (1 pt, 0)
4. Italy (0 pts, -3)
Group D finally opens up play tomorrow, with Spain taking on Russia in the early game, followed by defending champion Greece against Sweden. Look for Spain to try and make a statement to the other three teams that they are the side to beat in this group, and that those other teams will be fighting it out for second place at best.