Monday was the most highly anticipated day of the group stage in the 2008 UEFA European Championships. At last, Group C, this year’s group of death, began playing.
With Romania being the lowest ranked team in the group (12th in the international FIFA rankings), France hoped to take advantage by getting a win and beginning the tournament with three points.
But, it was not to be for the French. Nicolas Anelka and Karim Benzema both got great looks, but failed to convert. The match finished in a 0-0 draw.
The big story of the day and of the tournament thus far, came in the second match up in a mouth-watering game that pitted the Netherlands against Italy, the 2006 World Cup champions.
Heading into the game, everyone expected a conservative effort from both sides in order to come away with a point. But, the Netherlands threw caution to the wind, and not even the most devout Dutch fan could have dreamed of what was to take place.
Ruud van Nistelrooy struck first in the 26th minute, scoring on a controversial play.
Italian defender Christian Panucci was caught by Gianluigi Buffon’s fist as the keeper tried to clear a corner. Panucci fell to the ground and rolled off the field behind the goal.
The Italian defense was unable to clear the ball, and it was sent back inside the six-yard box onto the foot of Van Nistelrooy. He appeared to be offside, but the official ruled that Panucci kept him on.
Obviously, the Italians were infuriated by the call, while the Dutch were more than satisfied with the referee’s decision—1-0 Holland.
Wesley Sneijder delivered the dagger five minutes later. After a goal-line clearance off an Italian corner kick, the Netherlands quickly counterattacked the length of the field. Giovanni Van Bronckhorst sent a ball into the box. Dirk Kuyt nodded it down to Sneijder who put it past Buffon to send the Dutch ahead 2-0.
Toward the end of the first half, Van Nistelrooy had an opportunity to ice the game as he went one-on-one with Buffon. The Italian keeper proved to be good, and deflected the ball with his legs to send it over the target.
Finally, Van Bronckhorst added insult to injury in the 80th minute, as he headed home a goal to provide the Netherlands with a 3-0 victory over Italy, a result that couldn’t have been dreamt.
It seemed like everything was going right for the Dutch on Monday. Their defense that was predicted to be the weak link on the squad held sturdy against some of the game’s most talented attackers.
The offense, meanwhile, was clicking on all cylinders with Sneijder and Kuyt providing great runs and Van Nistelrooy sneaking in behind the defense to create scoring opportunities.
As if the Dutch fans weren’t satisfied enough, they became more encouraged when Robin Van Persie came on in the second half for Van Nistelrooy. As he becomes more fit, Van Persie will add to the already dangerously talented attacking front for the Netherlands.
On the other side of the ball, it was just one of those days for the Italians. After a dreadful first half, they managed to pick up their play in the second, especially on offense.
The Azzurri had a few very good looks from close range, including Luca Toni's one-on-one with Edwin Van der Sar that was sent over the crossbar. No matter how close they came, they simply could not put the ball in the back of the net.
Really, nothing was going right for them.
All game long, and especially in the first half, the Italian defense looked disorganized and somewhat lost without their leader Fabio Cannavaro. The decorated defensive superstar will miss the entire tournament due to an injury.
And if Monday was a display of the quality of the Italian defense sans-Cannavaro, then Italy is in for a long tournament. Actually, with the group they’re in, they might be in for a very short one.