Dutch fans watch the match at the Black Horse in Brooklyn, N.Y. Nine-year-old Lily is more interested in coloring than in Wesley Sneijder's lovely goal.
The Netherlands didn’t exactly bust the needle on the beauty-and-brilliance-ometer in their second match, but today’s 1-0 victory over Japan was a marked improvement over its display against Denmark. Dynamic soccer? No. A decent and occasionally entertaining game? Ja.
Both coaches, Takeshi Okada and Bert van Marwijk, stuck with the same starting lineups they deployed in their initial games, and my fellow Oranje supporters down at my Brooklyn HQ felt cautiously optimistic.
So did I: Yesterday, a Dutch friend tipped me off to a report in Amsterdam’s sports pages asserting that Oranje would fare better in Durban than in high-altitude Johannesburg. Seemed farfetched, but...
Maybe there's something to it. In sunny, sea-level Durban, the Dutch seemed to come on with greater confidence from the start, powerfully dominating 10 initial minutes followed by a nice bicycle kick from Kuyt. But the Japanese defended doggedly, pressing against Oranje and hardly ceding any space at all.
By the 30th minute, Japan significantly slowed Holland down, though the Dutch stayed on the ball for most of the half. Ten minutes before the end of the first half, Japan threatened with a Honda header that went way over the bar— and Stekelenburg energetically saved a shot from Matsui.
At halftime, there were two questions on every Oranje fan at the bar’s mind: When are we gonna score already? And: When will van Marwijk send Elia in?
But the Dutch coach started the second half with no changes. A fine cross from van Bronckhorst at 46 minutes was headed by van Persie (who had been listless thus far) and caught by Kawashima.
Still, it felt like the Dutch were coming back….and then…and then…BOOM! Terrific goal from Wesley Sneijder more than twenty yards away. Soon, Japan was back on the attack, but three consecutive corners yielded nothing.
At 72 minutes, van Marwijk finally switched out van der Vaart for Eljero Elia, the young star of the game against Denmark. Japan’s two ensuing changes made little impact, but another young Dutch sub, Ibrahim Afellay for Sneijder, came on strong.
Sure, another goal would’ve been nice, but let’s look at the facts: two games, two wins—and, note to everyone freaking out about the alleged weakness of the Dutch defense—two clean sheets. “Can’t play pretty all the time,” a visitor from Amsterdam said, seeming satisfied enough. For now.
I asked Lily, at age 9 the youngest Oranje supporter at the bar, if she had anything to say about the Dutch squad. She shook her head and went back to her coloring.
Well, the Dutch aren’t known for prolixity. I think we can be confident that Oranje will pull through to the next stage, that a fit and fierce Arjen Robben will soon join in, that the quality will keep improving, that there’s still some greatness in ‘em.
So let’s relax and have some herring and—for me, Lily, not you—a tall glass of Ketel One with tonic and a healthy slice of orange is in order.