Portugal, Dutch suffer glaring setbacks
Germany and Denmark sit in pole position Saturday night, atop the “group of death” after two hard-fought Euro 2012 wins in Ukraine. Many people thought the Germans would see off a diminished Portugal side — but few outside Copenhagen picked the Danes to top Group B at the expense of the Dutch.
And yet, that is where we stand after a wild and weird day in Ukraine. The first game was compelling, the second rather dull.
The Dutch lost 1-0 to Denmark in a game they controlled for large stretches. Germany and Portugal played rope-a-dope for more than 70 minutes until Mario Gomez finally slammed one in the second half. The story of the night is how ugly three teams truly looked on what many had expected to be a marquee night in the sport.
As temperatures crested 89º in Ukraine – a heat wave for that region of the world — we witnessed sluggish soccer and many empty seats. The warnings over Ukraine — and you can take your pick from measles, hooligans, politicians, profiteers or the scantily clad protesters from FEMEN — clearly took a dent at the gate tonight. How that story plays out in the upcoming days remains a mystery. UEFA has to be concerned that even a major game like Germany-Portugal had room to move.
Yet, that is not the reason for the malaise that hung over this game for large stretches. The fact is Germany and Portugal had too much respect for one another, and were content to play a waiting game. Germany’s attempts to patiently build the attack up were disrupted well by a better-than-expected Portuguese defense that restricted winger Lukas Podolski and Gomez.
But Portugal were rarely able to muster a counter of their own. They had pace to burn and do wondrous things on the wings, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani both showing some flair. Yet they continue to lack a central striker, and that cost them dearly as they had no one to finish the good work Raul Meireles and Bruno Alves started. The best chance for Portugal came from Pepe, as the Real Madrid defender took purchase on a broken play and belted the ball off the bar and straight down onto the line. It was remarkably poor fortune and partisans will argue they deserved more.
The second half saw Die Mannschaft come into the game, with Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira the creators. The goal came off a well-worked play wide right that saw a cross deflect off a defender to Gomez, who powered his header back across the line and home. That broke the match open and while the introduction of Silvestre Varela gave Portugal some bite it came too late. In the end, Portugal were unable to ride Ronaldo largely because they had failed to get him enough of the ball.
One sour note on the night came when the stadium announcer warned the German fans. They had been pelting Portuguese players on corners with wadded up bits of paper, and UEFA’s zero-tolerance approach included warning not only that the game would be abandoned but that Germany could be tossed from the Euros. The Dutch will have a bitter laugh about this – the governing body of the region apparently has a stricter policy on paper tossing than racist jeering.
The Dutch will be kicking themselves for failings of their own making. They were an odd team Saturday night; strangely vacant, unwilling to really press or simply unable to muster the energy needed. This is to take nothing away from the Danes, who were organized and efficient – and were smart in forcing Holland to run in the heat.
Simon Kjaer was superb in the back and keeper Stephan Andersen was sharp. But the unlikely hero was Michael Krohn-Dehli, who pounced on a loose ball after Simon Poulsen’s shot was blocked, and tore past Ron Vlaar and his rooted cohorts to score through Marten Stekelenburg’s legs.
Game on, yes? Think again.
Holland instead grew damper, the legs grew heavier and the shots became more errant. More damage was done to the Kharkiv seats and signboards by the Dutch strikers than to Andersen's goal. Wesley Sneijder often looked a lost man, vainly trying to get someone to put a ball on frame. The moment might have come when his perfect pass let sub Klaas-Jan Huntelaar free, but Andersen saved it brilliantly in the end.
The results mean the Dutch are in deep trouble. They face a must-win scenario against the Germans in four days or face an early exit. Portugal aren’t going to find the Danes that easy, either – the dark horses and former Euro winners may not be flashy, but they hold three points and all the cards.
The action shifts back to Poland Sunday night as Spain take on Italy in Gdansk. The Republic of Ireland opens group play and faces Croatia in Poznan. The first is alleged to be the thriller, but after seeing Saturday’s affair in Lviv, we might be in for a surprise.