Goals from Ashley Young and Gary Cahill had brought England level but the Bayern winger scored his second brilliant strike two minutes into added time to secure victory
Two brilliant goals by Arjen Robben and a brave header by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar helped the Netherlands withstand an England comeback to win 3-2 at Wembley.
Despite playing well within themselves for nearly an hour, outstanding attacking play by the Dutch in the second period exposed the fragility in the team under the caretaker charge of Stuart Pearce for what is likely to be the first and last time.
Two goals in two minutes early in the second half by Robben and Huntelaar demonstrated the gulf in class between the two teams.
But Gary Cahill pulled a goal back for England in the 85th minute after appearing from nowhere in the centre-forward’s position to guide the ball calmly through the legs of the Netherlands goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. A minute into added time, Ashley Young appeared scored the equaliser with a clever dink and appeared to have secured a draw for the home team.
But the magnificent Robben had other ideas, taking a ball on the right side of the box a minute later and shaping a curler into the top corner to send the 1,700 travelling Dutch fans behind Joe Hart’s goal into ecstasy.
However, the match will be remembered as much for the brilliance of Robben and the happy ending for Pearce that did not quite materialise as the sickening second-half clash of heads in the build-up to the second goal between Huntelaar and Chris Smalling, which left the Manchester United requiring lengthy treatment on the pitch before being carefully stretchered down the tunnel and on to a waiting ambulance.
Wembley, which posted a crowd of nearly 77,000, stood to applaud Smalling, who was believed to be conscious as he left the pitch but lost a lot of blood in the tussle with Huntelaar.
The towering centre-forward had courageously beaten the 22-year-old Englishman to Dirk Kuyt’s magnificent cross, which he nodded emphatically past Joe Hart from six yards. In doing so he clashed heads with Smalling, and both men immediately fell to the ground. Huntelaar, a half-time substitute for Robin van Persie, was also replaced immediately.
The game’s true moment of class had come just a minute earlier when flying Dutchman Robben picked up a loose ball 10 yards inside his own half, hared straight towards goal and jinked away from Cahill on the edge of the box before driving a thumping low shot back across Hart and into the corner. The Bayern Munich winger only beat one player, but it was still a brilliant and brutally decisive solo strike.
It lit up Wembley, which had been subdued up until that point had been quite and colourless despite the glamour of this February friendly.
Of the team that started the 1-0 win over Sweden at Wembley in mid-November when Fabio Capello was still in charge, there were only four survivors – Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Leighton Baines and Gareth Barry.
Pearce had stamped his mark on what could be his only match in charge 10 hours beforehand by naming Scott Parker as his captain ahead of Steven Gerrard. The only compensation for the Liverpool skipper, playing his first international since the 2-1 defeat to France in November 2010, came with the compliment of the No10 shirt and the playmaker role behind centre-forward Danny Welbeck, who was flanked by Adam Johnson and Ashley Young on either side.
They might have not lined up in the vivid orange jerseys worn by the 1,700 Netherlands supporters in the stands, but despite wearing a business-like black strip with orange markings, there was a familiar feel to the visitors.
The superlative front four of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt were supported by midfield enforcers Nigel de Jong and skipper Mark van Bommel. In defence, there were two Premier League operators past and present, John Heitinga and former Chelsea right-back Khalid Boulahrouz.
England began the brighter of the two teams. Baines’ cross-cum-shot from the left side of the penalty area floated just over the back-pedalling Maarten Stekelenburg’s crossbar and Cahill flashed a header from an Ashley Young corner narrowly wide of the post.
Gradually, the two teams, lining up in identical 4-2-3-1 formations, cancelled each other out. Sneijder dropped deep to orchestrate the play and create openings but Barry and Parker, forming a two-man barricade around the brilliant Dutchman, were so close to one another that, at times, they could have outstretched their arms and held hands.
The biggest talking point in the opening period came when a fitful Gerrard was substituted after 32 minutes with what the FA said was a tight hamstring a little over 72 hours following his 120 minutes of action and penalties in Sunday’s Carling Cup final. There was no sign of an outward injury but it was the kind of night.
The Netherlands made two changes at the break, replacing the quiet Van Persie with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, while James Milner came on for Barry.
The match was like two teams fulfilling a contractual obligation. But Sturridge lifted the mood at a two-thirds full Wembley with a neat move shortly after the break, cleverly rolling the ball to his left before snapping a fizzing shot that was well pushed away by Stelekenburg.
It set the tone for a much improved second period, which at least gave the crowd its money’s worth despite England losing their first match since 2010.