A must-win game for the Netherlands kicks off Wednesday in Kharkiv as group leaders Germany look to seal up a slot in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals at Holland’s expense.
This game long has been circled on fans’ calendars around the world, and both teams are treating it as a de-facto final. One of the contending teams — Germany, Portugal or Holland — will be heading out of the so-called "group of death," and Wednesday’s match is widely thought to be a make-or-break for both sides.
Yet what we have seen in the big games of this tournament so far is that teams are playing it safe, willing to bore because they are unwilling to lose. This has made for some curiously dull games and has elevated technically poor matches to the level of spectacle: Poland’s opener against Greece remains one of the most dramatic staged yet.
Germany is riding high after a hard-fought, unattractive 1-0 win against Portugal. Mario Gomez was the hero, gaining partial redemption for his performance in the Champions League final with a peach of a header to eke out the win. It was hardly a complete performance, and it showed how the Germans can be contained as Portugal played a cautious game in which it sacrificed its best creator, Cristiano Ronaldo, in order to stay safe.
Germany-Netherlands is expected to be a different affair. While winger Arjen Robben offers a similar threat from the flanks that Portugal’s Ronaldo and Nani did, the Dutch also have free-flowing creator Wesley Sneijder, who was a lone bright spot in their disappointing loss to Denmark.
They also have Robin van Persie and the towering Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, meaning they have a grander aerial threat. What the Dutch don’t seem to have is perspective. Judging by their comments to the press, the Dutch seem to be unable to accept what happened against Denmark.
In that 1-0 loss, a very average back line allowed Michael Krohn-Dehli to nip round the back to nutmeg goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Then, Holland notably wilted in the heat and put more shots into the stands than on frame. The Dutch looked lethargic and seemed unable to grasp that the game was slipping out of hand. On top of that, the Danes showed others how to beat the Netherlands: Don’t just sit back, move forward and tire the men out.
And yet, the Dutch seem to believe that they were the better team on the night. Manager Bert van Marwijk claimed his side deserved a penalty and intimated that his side had dominated the affair. That’s not even close to being true: Holland looked positive for the first 20 minutes and then utterly regressed. The man who covered himself in glory was not van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart or any of the other of the bold-faced names in orange, but Danish center back Simon Kjaer.
To survive against a German team that is far more forceful coming out of the back, the Dutch are going to need a different game plan. Van Persie was ineffective against the stout Danish defense, meaning that Huntelaar has to get a nod. But can van Marwijk sacrifice Nigel de Jong to give van der Vaart — who has to start to be effective in a creative role — a run-out? That’s a tougher question: On the evidence, John Heitinga and Ron Vlaar need the cover.
For Germany, Gomez and Lukas Podolski again are expected to run up top with Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira again pulling the strings. But the key man is likely to be Philipp Lahm. In the opener, the fullback was unable to get up and create as he usually does; against Robben, he is likely to be pinned back. That will mean more is needed from Bastian Schweinsteiger, another German who had a quiet game in the opener.
If Germany can run through the gears, it can handle this Dutch side and move on to the next round. If Holland plays a foul-heavy game and tries to disrupt, we could instead see a slog. What is unlikely is that we will get the kind of free-flowing creativity both teams are capable of. It appears too much is at stake.