In the second round of matches, Spain bounced back from its lackluster 1-1 draw with Italy in tantalizing fashion, but the Netherlands continued its group stage struggle at the 2012 European Championships.
The good news for Barcelona fans – Afellay again started for the Oranje. He joined Stekelenburg, Van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Willems, Van Bommel, De Jong, Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie.
Germany fielded an equally strong lineup in Neuer, Hummels, Badstuber, Lahm, Boateng, Khedira, Schweinsteiger, Özil, Podolski, Müller and Gomez.
After a shock 1-0 loss to Denmark, the Netherlands sorely needed a win for confidence. The Dutch started their attack early when Van Persie snagged a Van Bommel assist but guided his attempt straight to Neuer in the 6th minute. Germany returned the favor three minutes later when an Özil volley hit the post. Afellay had his chance with a low strike but Neuer again buried it.
The game was equally intense on both sides. The German defense didn’t look entirely impenetrable and the Netherland’s offense was persistent. Unfortunately for the Dutch, the Germans were the first to strike home.
Schweinsteiger cut the ball through the Oranje defense in the 24th minute to Gomez who cheekily dodged Heitinga. Stekelenburg managed to get a leg to the ball, but it still sailed to the back of the net.
That wasn’t the last time the two Bayern Munich men would combine. In the 38th minute, they again created a goal for their country. The opportunity began with a long goal kick all the way to the opposite box by Neuer. After a few passes, it was again Schweinsteiger with the assist to Gomez. Stekelenburg dove too early and the finish was simple for the striker.
The Netherlands entered halftime with a 2-0 deficit and the wind completely out of their sails. In order to reinvigorate the team, the coach made two early second half substitutions. Both Afellay and Van Bommel exited in favor of Huntelaar and Van der Vaart.
Germany built on its momentum from the first half and dominated most of the possession and chances. The Netherlands had to rely on offside flags and other technicalities to prevent another German goal. The Dutch just began to find their rhythm in the 71st minute when Robben’s mesmerizing footwork sent a ball into Sneijder. A last minute lunge by Boateng stood in the way of a goal.
Germany made its first substitute a minute later when the brace-scoring Gomez came off for Klose.
The substitution may have been bad luck for the Germans because the Oranje pulled one back a minute later. Sneijder may have assisted the goal, but the credit fell largely on the striker. Van Persie spun and dribbled and finally fired his distance shot well past Neuer. With a 2-1 score line and just under 20 minutes left to play, a comeback was in the works.
With the ante upped, the game became a little more vicious. De Jong earned a yellow card in the 80th minute for chopping down Lahm in the midfield. Huntelaar also took a shot at Schweinsteiger’s head but evaded a booking.
In the 80th and 81st minutes, Kroos replaced Özil and Robben made way for Kuyt.
The Germans desperately tried to wind down the clock. The referee showed Boateng a yellow card for his time-wasting tactics in the 87th minute. Willems soon followed for pushing Müller out of bounds. As a last attempt to beat the clock, Bender substituted on for Müller in the 92nd minute.
Unfortunately for the Barcelona midfielder, his team lost 2-1 and faces an uphill battle for advancing in the championships. The Netherlands’ qualification for the knockout stages is up to fate. The Dutch must beat Portugal, but they still have to rely on Germany defeating Denmark and goal advantage. Germany, however, only needs one point from its last match to seal its qualification.
In the other Group B match, Portugal beat Denmark 3-2. What could be Netherlands’ final game of the tournament will be June 17 against Portugal.
Four blaugrana players made Spain’s starting lineup against the Cinderella story Irish team. Piqué, Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets teamed up with Casillas, Ramos, Arbeloa, Alba, Alonso, Silva, and Torres. To match, Ireland chose Given, St Ledger, Ward, O’Shea, Dunne, Whelan, McGeady, Andrews, Duff, Keane and Cox.
Spain didn’t take long to start beating up on the Irish. Torres, an unlikely starter and even more unlikely early goal scorer, put Spain ahead in the fourth minute. Iniesta and Silva continued their powerful combination before the Manchester City man passed off to Torres who blasted past Given. Of course, the striker then missed a clear opportunity just four minutes later, but his inability to finish was forgiven due to Ireland’s lack of pressure.
The Spanish dominated possession and created most of the goal scoring opportunities. Their dizzying tika-taka mesmerized and frustrated the Irish who couldn’t seem to make anything work. Although another goal was yet to be scored by any team, the possibility for another by Spain lurked.
Irish captain Keane showed his frustration in the 38th minute by conceding a free kick and earning a yellow card. In the 45th minute, it was Keane with Ireland’s best chance of the game so far when a quick counter only ended with a Piqué block. A minute later, the referee gave Whelan a yellow card on the other end of the pitch for deliberately slicing down Silva.
The second half could have been a fresh start for the Irish. The team was only a goal down and with new substitute Walters replacing Cox, energy seemed to be renewed.
Silva quickly put an end to any new hope. Iniesta continued his utter midfield reign with an assist. Silva collected the ball and had his first shot punched away by Given. The ball still fell in Silva’s path, though, and he aimed true with his rebound to hand Spain a 2-0 lead.
Even with the solid lead, Spain still found a way into the referee’s book. Alonso gave Walters a shove off the ball and the referee didn’t miss it. Alonso was soon taken off in the 65th minute and replaced by Javi Martínez.
The little green men couldn’t catch a break. Even though they had a few more chances, Spain increased the gap even more with a third goal. Torres again was the scorer from a Silva assist. The Chelsea man beat his defender and went one-on-one with Given. His shot rolled to the bottom corner and out of the goalkeeper’s reach.
Just after his brace, Torres made way for Cesc. In the 76th minute, Duff cleared out for McClean and Martínez earned a yellow card. More substitutions followed in the 80th minute. Cazorla switched with Iniesta and Whelan took the bench for Green.
The final low blow to the Irish came in the 83th minute from a Spanish corner. Silva whipped in the cross and Cesc met the ball at close range. The ball nicked the post but still tumbled into the net for Spain’s 4-0 lead.
St Ledger earned a yellow card a minute later in his anger and the final minutes dwindled by depressingly for one of the smallest nations in the tournament.
Spain won handily and proved the false nine position is a keeper. Unfortunately, the reigning champions also had to send home Ireland and devastate its dedicated fans. Spain now top the group on goal difference as Italy was held to a 1-1 draw with Croatia in the other Group C game. Spain plays Croatia in the final group stage match June 18.
Group A’s second round ended with a 2-1 win for the Czech Republic over Greece and a 1-1 draw between Poland and Russia. The final group competes Friday.
Image Source: AP Photo/Michael Sohn