Dutch have beauty at beck and call at Euro 2012
Yes, the Netherlands can be brutal. Yes, the Netherlands have been brutal - and nasty. If they put their minds to it, though, they are a billboard for the beauty of football.
Just the ring of the names Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder says enough. And count on Barcelona midfielder Ibrahim Afellay to squeeze in among them.
Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk famously said that winning without beauty would have been fine at the 2010 World Cup, and his team played the part in a foul-marred final when it lost to Spain 1-0 in extra time.
Since then, they have cruised through European qualifying and have often shown the flashes of brilliance that have led to the nickname the Brazil of Europe.
In their last match before their Group B opener against Denmark on Saturday, the Dutch trounced Northern Ireland 6-0. But beyond the low quality of their opponents, they showed what some of Europe's greatest players can accomplish when they are fit and working together.
`'We should not start a victory dance just yet, but we are on the right way,'' Van Marwijk said after the match against Northern Ireland.
Van Persie and Afellay scored two goals each and Sneijder curled in a free kick in last Saturday's blistering display of Dutch skills. Van Persie and Afellay found one another almost at will, both using the smooth skills their clubs have become renowned for.
The timing of their matchup is near perfect. Van Persie has played all season long, carrying Arsenal almost on his own. He was voted player of the season by his Premier League peers and became the top scorer at the end of a draining season.
Afellay and Sneijder took the opposite route into the European Championship.
The 25-year-old Afellay underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left knee in October. The midfielder made only a handful of appearances for Barcelona this season, after he played in key games during its successful Champions League run a year earlier.
`'It is great to be back on the pitch after an injury like that. I'm relishing every moment,'' he said.
It is obvious. His speed on the ball is lightning and his close dribbling skills are vintage Barcelona. And with Van Persie in the center, he has struck up a fine relationship that he always knew was there.
Both his goals against Northern Ireland came off assists from Van Persie.
`'We just click, even outside the pitch,'' Affelay said. ''In fact, from Day 1. And it is fantastic that it shows on the pitch, too.''
Afellay now feels like he is at the start of his season when others are at the end. And it's not much different for Sneijder.
The Inter Milan midfielder was instrumental in getting the Netherlands to the World Cup final in South Africa with five goals and his creative drive upfield. This year, though, he has been struggling with injury and form.
As Inter Milan was mired in crisis he was criticized for not taking enough of a leadership role. But late in the season Sneijder returned after missing more than two months with a right leg muscle injury. He, too, thinks he is peaking at the right time.
`'I am fit and my numbers don't lie,'' Sneijder said.
And Van Persie certainly knows how to appreciate an in-form Sneijder, especially when passes curl in that offer the best of opportunities, like Saturday's opener against the Northern Ireland.
`'Sneijder can do that like no other,'' Van Persie said. ''Fantastic pass, good goal. That's how we like it.''