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Unified Dutch hand Italy rare heavy defeat
Mike Collett in Berne | June 10, 2008 12:08 IST
Italy [Images] are notoriously slow starters at major finals, but not even their most pessimistic fan imagined they would begin Euro 2008 [Images] by suffering their worst defeat in a tournament since the 1970 World Cup final.
Trounced 4-1 by Brazil [Images] in one of soccer's all-time great games in Mexico City, the hammering they took from the Dutch on Monday could have been even worse.
Italy keeper Gianluigi Buffon made three outstanding saves, including one from point-blank range from Ruud van Nistelrooy [Images] just before half-time.
The irony was that Italy could have been ahead, with a header that Luca Toni directed wide, even before Van Nistelrooy's controversial opener in the 26th minute -- a goal that was allowed to stand even though he looked offside.
The debate will rage whether Italy defender Christian Panucci, lying outside the field of play after being bundled over the line by a collision with Buffon, was still "active" or not and therefore playing Van Nistelrooy onside.
It did not appear so, but the referee and linesman decided he was, and the goal stood. Law 11, which covers the game's offside rule, will be widely quoted in the next few days.
However, once Wesley Sneijder made it 2-0 with a superbly taken volley five minutes later, the match looked beyond the Italians who usually defend so soundly and are so hard to beat.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst's third after 79 minutes completed a memorable night for the Dutch, who had not beaten Italy for almost 30 years since their last win over them in the 1978 World Cup finals.
The outcome of the game left coaches Marco van Basten and Italy's Roberto Donadoni, who played alongside each other for AC Milan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with deeply divided feelings.
For one night at least, their old friendship was put to one side in the battle for vital points in the toughest of the four groups.
Van Basten was naturally delighted by the outcome and said that his wide men had made life difficult for the Italians.
Dirk Kuyt and Khalid Boulahrouz down the right flank, and Sneijder, celebrating his 24th birthday, and Orlando Engelaar on the left, looked dangerous almost every time the Dutch attacked.
Rafael van der Vaart's midfield battle with Andrea Pirlo also tipped the balance the Netherlands' way.
While the Italians usually start tournaments slowly, the Dutch normally start tournaments in disarray after a series of internal rows, fall-outs and injuries.
This year's pre-tournament convulsion resulted in Clarence Seedorf pulling out of the squad, unhappy with the role Van Basten had for him while injury has hit Arjen Robben's chances of shining.
But those problems were forgotten as the Dutch produced a real team performance. Their passing was crisp, their running intelligent and the sheer joy of the third goal when the entire bench leapt as one man to acclaim it spoke volumes.
Italy started the match with seven of the team that won the World Cup final two years ago and they have not become a bad team overnight.
But they do face a fight to qualify for the knockout stages. Donadoni must lift his men for the match against Romania in Zurich next Friday, and a victory is by no means assured.
Italy played a huge part in the best match of the competition so far, but they need to improve in defence, midfield and attack if they are going to make up the ground they lost on a delightful night for the Dutch in the Swiss capital.
Complete Coverage: Euro 2008