Three thoughts: Ronaldo finds form in Portugal's win over Netherlands
The Dutch midfield came together despite the country's 2-1 loss to Portugal
Often criticized, Christiano Ronaldo looked like his old self with two goals
The Netherlands' full-backs must link the Dutch defense and front lines
|Final :: Kharkiv, Ukraine|
Van Der Vaart 11'
Here are my three thoughts on Portugal's 2-1 win over the Netherlands in Group B:
1. The Dutch midfield: Finally Bert van Marwijk gave the Dutch public what it wanted, dropped Mark van Bommel and played a holding pair of Nigel De Jong and Rafael van der Vaart. And finally we saw just why Van Marwijk has been so reluctant to go into games without his two dogs of war. It all started extremely well for the Dutch, Van der Vaart showing the positive side of his game as he ran on to an Arjen Robben pass and whipped a finish around Rui Patricio. That showed the advantage of playing him: not only would Van Bommel probably not have been able to produce such an instant, accurate finish, but he wouldn't even have been that high up the pitch. The two halves of the broken team from the first two matches were suddenly linked. That gave the Dutch a flow and a rhythm but it also left it with a desperately soft center.
Once Portugal began to attack, it sliced through the Netherlands again and again. Chance after chance was missed and it was a minor miracle the Dutch got to half-time having conceded only once. Cristiano Ronaldo struck the post, Maarten Stekelenberg made two outstanding saves and Helder Postiga scuffed horribly wide before, at last, Ronaldo ran onto a superb pass from Joao Pereira and scored his first goal of the tournament.
The blizzard of chances eased a little after halftime but while the Dutch had the bulk of the ball, the best chances were all Portugal's.
Van der Vaart did hit the post again, but Portugal really should have scored a lot more than the two it did manage. The inability to convert chances, though, is an ongoing trait.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo: It can't be much fun for Cristiano Ronaldo playing for Portugal. His strut doesn't necessarily help his cause but the pressure he is under constantly must be appalling. He is expected constantly to be the star, to win every game single-handedly and, when things go wrong, he is always the one who takes the blame. When his personal radar is awry, as it was in the victory over Denmark last week, he is ridiculed; the curse, perhaps, of genius.
It may be, given the dearth of strikers in Portugal -- a weird historical trend; it hasn't had a top-class striker since Eusebio -- that he'd be better as a center-forward for his country, but he has apparently said he would rather play on the wing. He was exceptional there against the Dutch, a constant attacking threat, the post twice preventing him from scoring only the ninth hat-trick in European Championship history. Both his goals, perhaps significantly, came when he'd drifted inside. His surging run and pass to Fabio Coentrao just after the hour was superb, his delayed pass across goal for Nani after 72 minutes even better.
The only slightly sour note was his first goal celebration, looking into the camera and mouthing "magnifico", seemed almost angry, a pointed response to his critics. In so doing, like Samir Nasri, he turned a moment of joy for his country into a moment of personal vindication, which perhaps says something for the relief he felt. That first goal was, though, just his sixth goal in 16 tournament games for Portugal; such stats don't tell the whole story, but his critics are perhaps right to expect more.
3. The Dutch full-backs: The broken nature of the Dutch team hasn't just been about fielding two cloggers at the back of midfield. That would be fine if only it had attacking full-backs. Gregory van der Wiel, at right-back, is solid enough, and did a reasonable job of trying to stop Ronaldo, but he very rarely breaks forward, while the left-back, Jetro Willems, had a nightmare. The PSV left-back is only 18 and is highly regarded -- Sir Alex Ferguson supposedly said he was the next Patrice Evra -- but he was a clear weak link. His distribution was appalling -- it was his miscued pass that led to the Portuguese equaliser. He was perhaps fortunate as well only to be booked for a lunging challenge on Joao Moutinho.
It's not just that he made individual errors; he seems conceptually wrong for this system -- although he is rather more attacking for PSV.
If the central midfield won't provide the link between defense and front line, the full-backs have to. When Willems was withdraw midway through the second half it was for Ibrahim Afellay, a winger who came on -- a clear attempt on the part of Van Marwijk to bridge that gap.
All it did, though, was leave Nani in acres of space -- from which he created Ronaldo's second.