Euro 2012: Dutch on a mission to avenge final pain
Tournaments used to have cliches. The Germans will come through as smoothly and efficiently as any engine produced by Mercedes. England will perform abjectly until the final match when they will go down heroically.
Spain will be humiliated and the Dutch will lose beautifully.
These truisms have come undone. The Germans are thrilling, but erratic. England did, indeed, perform abjectly in South Africa, but saved their worst 'til last.
Spain are World and European champions and, although the Netherlands lost the World Cup final in Johannesburg, the lasting image was that of Nigel de Jong's boot planted into Xabi Alonso's chest.
The fact that Bert van Marwijk's side reached the final was scarred by the way in which they appeared to want to kick their way to the trophy. Even in their golden years, they could mix it -- as anyone who saw them finish the 1976 European Championship semi-final with nine men might testify. But there was always beauty melded in with the bruises.
There used to be another Dutch tradition: they loved to talk, often destructively.
However, their press conference before they opened their campaign in Kharkiv lasted a mere eight minutes and Van Marwijk was openly irritated by questions about the racial abuse some of his players had received during an open training session in Krakow on Thursday, ahead of his side's opener against Denmark tonight.
Although it was confirmed as racist by Uefa, the Dutch manager said he had heard nothing untoward and dismissed the question when it was put a second time. The fact the chief complainant was Mark van Bommel, his captain and son-in-law who was sitting next to him, made his brusqueness all the starker.
With the exception of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who announced his retirement on the sound of Howard Webb's final whistle, the players that will face Denmark this evening will be essentially the same that collapsed exhausted to the pitch at Soccer City. For some, the motivation will be intense.
The only way Klaas Jan Huntelaar will come to terms with his omission from a World Cup final will be to seize this moment.
For all the estimations of his self-worth that finally repelled Manchester United last summer, Wesley Sneijder has spent a season on the margins as Inter worked their way chaotically through three managers. And then there is Arjen Robben.
As he sat slumped in his chair during the post-match sponsors banquet that Bayern Munich had somewhat unwisely, somewhat arrogantly, scheduled directly after the European Cup final, which Bayern lost to Chelsea, he was reflecting on his fourth successive final defeat.
The one in Munich, the 'home final', still stings like an ulcer. "The penalty saved by Petr Cech will always be with me," he said.
"I don't like the fact that people say I fail in finals, but it is something that is following me now. This is a chance to put that right."
The way Van Marwijk's side recovered from the despair of Johannesburg points its own road. They reeled off nine straight victories in qualification, scoring more goals than anyone else.
Van Marwijk favours a single striker with three attacking midfielders behind him -- usually Sneijder, Robben and Barcelona's Ibrahim Affellay. The choice of centre-forward seems to lie squarely between Robin van Persie and Huntelaar, the top-scorers in the Premier League and the Bundesliga.
Twenty years ago in Gothenburg, Denmark, against the odds, denied a forward line of Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp a place in a European Championship final that the Dutch side of 1992 appeared pre-destined to win. Instead, in the Ullevi Stadium, they found themselves frustrated by a side that had not even properly qualified and eventually went down in a shoot-out.
They had lost and lost beautifully. They were denied by a goalkeeper named Schmeichel and tonight they face his son. (© Independent News Service)
Netherlands v Denmark,
Live, RTE2/BBC1, 5.0