Germany ran out 2-1 winners over neighbours and historic rivals Netherlands in what was marked out by many as the blue riband fixture of the Euro 2012 group stage in Kharkiv.
Mario Gomez’s two first–half goals had the Germans cruising for most of the Group B clash. Robin van Persie’s strike with 17 minutes remaining was not enough to stop the Oranje being on the brink of a shock early exit.
The Dutch now have to beat Portugal by two clear goals and hope Germany beat Denmark on the final matchday in the group in order to progress on goal difference. Germany only need a point against the Danes on Sunday to be absolutely sure of making it into the quarterfinals.
Here are 10 things we learned from the match that pitted Fussball against Voetbal.
Four years ago, Mario Gomez became a continental laughing stock for his ineffectual displays in front of goal for Germany at Euro 2008. In the tournament in Austria and Switzerland, Gomez failed to score at all, sometimes in near comical circumstances.
His two clinically-taken finishes against the Dutch on Wednesday night took his tally for the tournament to three goals from just four shots on target, and his total since the start of the 2011/12 season to 44 goals in 52 games for club and country.
It is fair to say that Gomez has exorcised his international football demons.
Ibrahim Afellay arrived at Barcelona in January 2011 amid much fanfare as a highly talented player ready to make the step up to the next level after some impressive years at PSV Eindhoven.
After making plenty of appearances between joining the Spanish giants and the summer, his progress at the Camp Nou was cruelly halted by a knee injury in September of last year.
Afellay played just 91 minutes of football for Barca at the end of the season before joining up with the Dutch squad, and the two pre-tournament friendlies were clearly not enough to usher him back into form for the championship itself.
International tournaments always see the same tired old clichés and stereotypes taken out of mothballs to be used again, but some of them turn out to be true.
For example, the old adage that a Netherlands squad is never a harmonious one appears to be borne out again at Euro 2012. Eurosport relays reports by various sources that strike duo Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Robin van Persie have been arguing, whilst Rafael van der Vaart has expressed his dissatisfaction at being left on the bench.
To top it all off, Arjen Robben appeared to stomp his way around the stadium in a huff after he was replaced by Dirk Kuyt against Germany and left on the opposite side of the pitch to the dugout.
If Netherlands are to have a chance of progressing from the group as its bottom team going into the final round of games, manager Bert van Marwijk needs to cultivate some team spirit and fast.
Joachim Loew’s starting XI against Netherlands contained seven Bayern Munich players—Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Holger Badstuber, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Mueller and Mario Gomez. An eighth Bayern player, Toni Kroos, made an appearance off the bench.
After the disappointment of losing out on the Champions League to Chelsea in the final at their own Allianz Arena a month ago, a significant part of Bayern’s squad will fancy their chances of lifting one European title this year.
Contrast the German team with Netherlands, for whom each of the 14 players involved on Wednesday all came from separate clubs. That is not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it may help explain why Germany are such a cohesive unit and the Dutch look on the verge of imploding.
It is not just proximity and history that makes Netherlands v Germany such a great rivalry. Matches between them at tournaments are always entertaining.
All eight meetings between them at major tournaments (three at World Cups, including the 1974 final, and five at European Championships) have seen both teams score.
Germany’s win in Kharkiv levels the rivalry up as far as European Championship matches are concerned at two wins and a draw each. However, they lead the all-time head-to-head with 15 wins to Netherlands’ 10, plus 14 draws.
OK, this is not something that we necessarily learned from this one match, but the win over the Dutch was another example of how Mesut Ozil is so wonderful to watch in any given game.
No matter what the occasion or the opposition, the Real Madrid No. 10 plays his game in the same wonderfully fluid way, ghosting away from his marker and picking out a perfectly weighted pass as though it was the easiest thing in the world, something he proved again against the Dutch.
Ozil is in that regard very reminiscent of Kaka, a former World Player of the Year who he is keeping out of the Real team. If he can get his goal tally matching his rate of assists—he set up 17 goals for Real Madrid in La Liga last term—then he will surely be on the running for the top prize sooner rather than later.
Few people could have imagined that Netherlands would go into their final group match at Euro 2012 bottom of their group. The draw with Germany, Portugal and Denmark may have been dubbed the ‘Group of Death’, but the Dutch themselves were a major factor in Group B being dubbed as such.
World Cup finalists two years ago and ranked third in Europe by FIFA, Van Persie, Sneijder and co were identified not as dark horses but as genuine contenders before the tournament began, especially with them playing Denmark in their first game.
After defeat to the Danes and Germany, to have any chance of progressing the Dutch must beat Portugal, a country they have only beaten once in 10 previous meetings.
Much fuss was made following the Denmark defeat about the performance of Robin van Persie in that match. The Premier League’s top scorer and England’s reigning double-Player of the Year had one of his worst games in front of goal that anyone could remember.
With the Bundesliga’s own top scorer, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, waiting in the wings, the inevitable speculation that Van Persie would be dropped began to circulate.
However, Bert van Marwijk is clearly wise to the fact that if he has chosen Van Persie as his lead striker then he should not be jettisoned after one poor performance in a blue moon. Although he was not on fire against Germany, the Arsenal captain’s crisp strike to score Netherlands’ first goal of the tournament proves RvP is still good for his starting berth.
The only question now should be whether or not Huntelaar should start alongside him or remain on the bench.
Mario Goetze was one of the most talked-about young players in Europe for most of last season after he claimed assist after assist to help Borussia Dortmund to the Bundesliga title in 2010-11.
With Goetze missing much of last season through injury, Marco Reus took his place as the exciting young midfielder on everyone’s lips following a sensational season with Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Both players are now teammates at Dortmund, who have retained their German crown, and they will get plenty of time to know each other before next season as they are both sat on the Germany bench unable to get a game.
To have two young talents such as Reus and Goetze in their squad and neither of them play a minute in Germany’s two games so far is testament to the incredible depth of quality at Joachim Loew’s disposal.
The Netherlands-Germany game marked the midway point of the group stage of Euro 2012, and already things are shaping up for this to be a highly memorable tournament.
In Wednesday’s two Group B games alone we were treated to eight goals—among them exemplary efforts from Helder Postiga, Silvestre Varela, Mario Gomez and Robin van Persie.
After the World Cup in South Africa two years ago which started slowly and only moved out of second gear on a couple of occasions, this tournament has been a refreshing thrill-ride so far (England notwithstanding).
Events off the pitch and in the stands may be casting a dark and menacing cloud over proceedings, but at least on the pitch the action is living up to the hype.