Euro 2012 Day 2: Dutch loss a big story, but don't overlook the Danes
There were two things that the managers of Netherlands and Denmark agreed on before the teams met on a clammy Saturday evening in Kharkiv, Ukraine: The Dutch were the favorites, and their players are 'arrogant in a good way.'
"It's more about self-belief, really," said Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk. It's a resource the Oranje will need to tap in to, having been beaten despite fashioning 29 attempts at goal (several more, by some counts) and with Germany and Portugal still to play in Group B. Though he did hit the post, Arjen Robben repeatedly made the wrong decision in the final third, while Robin van Persie's existential angst was almost audible come the final whistle.
We should focus, though, on Denmark, who claimed to be "jealous" of Holland's status, but played the part of the earnest underdog just right. The Danes' rode their luck, certainly; besides Robben's post-thwacking shot towards the end of the first half, Lars Jacobsen survived a late penalty appeal for handball. There were, however, some impressive performances up and down the pitch, from Stephan Andersen (a commanding presence in the Danish penalty area) through central defense and defensive midfield, to the match-winner Michael Krohn-Dehli (whose first-half strike iced a confident display).
Talking about Krohn-Dehli's goal, Dutch captain Mark van Bommel called it Denmark's "only dangerous action" -- not an entirely unfair assessment, but one that sidesteps a significant point. No boxing judge would have awarded the Danes the game on points, but they knew exactly where the Netherlands were vulnerable and aimed their punches in that direction. With Ibrahim Afellay and Arjen Robben happy to leave Jetro Willems and Gregory van der Wiel to defending the flanks, Danish full backs Jacobsen and Simon Poulsen repeatedly ventured forward -- on several occasions a better final ball from either might have given Maarten Stekelenburg a busier time.
At No. 9 in the current FIFA rankings, Denmark was never the rank outsiders suggested. This result, however, inevitably will invite comparisons with 1992, when the Danes -- a last-minute replacement for Yugoslavia -- upset the reigning champions Holland in the semifinals and then beat Germany to take the title.
The Dutch, mind you, may prefer to remember 1988. That year, they lost their first group game, later beat the Germans and eventually captured the trophy with a 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union in the final.
The first 71 minutes of Germany-Portugal hobbled by slowly, but in the 72nd Mario Gomez -- whom Joachim Low was waiting to replace with Miroslav Klose --
There was much muttering when Germany's starting lineups were announced and it emerged that Loew had opted for Mats Hummels at the back, rather than Per Mertesacker, who had played a bigger part in qualifying and had apparently recovered from injury. Hummels was excellent though, doing enough -- particularly in that frantic final 20 minutes, when Portugal really started to play -- to merit holding on to his spot.
Group C gets under way with a tasty looking tie between Spain and Italy -- a rematch of the quarterfinal that Spain won on penalties four years ago. Both teams come into the tournament with decent unbeaten runs.
The second game features Republic of Ireland, which is appearing at the European finals for the first time since 1988. Midfielder Glenn Whelan wants the Irish to 'do a Greece' (we're guessing he's referencing 2004, not 2008). Croatian coach Slaven Bilic says he has plans A, B and C ready. All of which, presumably, involve Luka Modric.