On the evidence of last night’s mismatch in Kharkiv, the animosity has drained out of this fixture. Usually bristling with intent against their neighbours, the listless Dutch could barely summon up a fight here, let alone a mouthful of spittle. All that saved them from embarrassment was the endeavour and guile of Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie – that and Germany’s largesse.
Widely condemned for their snarling, un-Dutch display in Johannesburg two years ago, Bert van Marwijk’s side have been strangely passive in Ukraine. Once they would have swum across the Zuiderzee for their coach, knives clutched between teeth and faces daubed in boot polish. Now a saunter across an Amsterdam canal would seem a mission too far.
Lothar Matthaus’ Germany, or Michael Ballack’s for that matter, would have ground such feckless opponents into the dust. But this new German breed bear no grudges against anyone. Once Mario Gomez had made sure of the points – the striker celebrating his second as he would a hat-trick against San Marino – they charitably eased off and allowed their old rivals to keep the score respectable.
The gap between the two sides was as wide as the one that separated the Netherlands’ front line from their rearguard in a passion-lite first-half showing, the Dutch perhaps mindful of England’s fate when pushing forward en masse against the Germans in Bloemfontein.
The lumbering Van Bommel made the occasional trudge across no-man’s land to offer typically ineffective support, but for the most part the attacking was left to the diamond formed by Sneijder, Van Persie, Robben and the unfortunate Afellay, given too much to do here after a blank, injury-ravaged season with Barcelona.
With service virtually non-existent from the flanks, Philipp Lahm having tucked his Bayern team-mate neatly into his pocket, Van Persie fed off the scraps thrown to him down the middle. A long-ball from Mathijsen would have given the Dutch an opener had the Arsenal man slid his close-range effort a yard either side of Neuer. A scuffed shot wide followed, and when Afellay finally managed to get behind the German defence, his weak low centre, placed behind Van Persie, was easily cleared.
Forced to drop deeper and deeper in search of possession, despite Sneijder’s tireless work and the introduction of Van der Vaart, RVP eventually fashioned a fine goal from the middle of the German half.
It was ironic to see the Dutch, seasoned compressors of space by fair means (Germany 1974) and foul (Johannesburg 2010), give so much of it away in key areas. Space for Schweinsteiger to punch through the ball through to Gomez from the edge of the box. Space for Gomez to take one touch, pirouette on the ball and stroke the opening goal past Stekelenberg. And space for Badstuber to then fire a point-blank header at the Dutch keeper.
There was yet more space for Gomez to exploit a minute after that, when he put the result beyond doubt, and more than enough for the excellent Hummels – whose emergence here as been as eye-catching as Dieter Eilts’ was at Euro 96 – to do a passable Matthaus impression in the second half before shooting straight at Stekelenberg.
Van Persie, joined by this time by flat-track bully Huntelaar, enjoyed no such luxuries at the other end. Forced to drop deeper and deeper in search of possession, despite Sneijder’s tireless work and the introduction of Van der Vaart, he eventually fashioned a fine goal from the middle of the German half. Belatedly, Van Marwijk’s side began to press. Conserving their energy for bigger tests ahead, their opponents easily held them off.
At the end, more signs of how the rivalry has lost its edge. While Muller sportingly consoled a bereft Sneijder, Van Persie exchanged handshakes, compliments and shirts with Klose, the Dutchman then slipping the white jersey on. The days of pretend arse-wiping have long gone.
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