Holland 3-0 Italy
Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst grabbed the goals as Holland crushed World Champions Italy 3-0 in an absorbing, and perhaps a touch controversial game in Berne.
The experienced Clarence Seedorf refused to travel to Euro 2008, Ryan Babel was also at home due to injury, while Robin Van Persie was still not fit enough to start.
Marco Van Basten surprisingly opted for Khalid Boulahrouz ahead of Johnny Heitinga in defence. Ruud Van Nistelrooy started as the lone frontman, supported by Rafael Van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt.
The Azzurri had some problems in defence, having been robbed of the services of inspirational captain Fabio Cannavaro, who injured his ankle in training and was ruled out of the tournament. Roberto Donadoni also sprung a surprise by starting Massimo Ambrosini ahead of Daniele De Rossi to form an all-Milan midfield. Christian Panucci had been a doubt for the game due to a knee problem, but he started at right back. Donadoni employed a forward trident of Mauro Camoranesi, Luca Toni and Antonio Di Natale.
Italy had the first chance of the game as Di Natale lost his man down the right, but in a good shooting position he tried to find Toni in the middle, and over-hit his cross. Camoranesi then lashed a shot well wide from long range.
Toni and Camoranesi combined well, and the latter slipped a clever through ball to Ambrosini but he just couldn’t get onto the end of it. Down the other end Van Nistelrooy saw a shot charged down.
On 10 minutes Sneijder smashed a free kick from a promising position against the wall, while Gianluigi Buffon got down to make the first save of the game from Van der Vaart’s daisycutter.
Moments later Toni rose above his man at the back post but his header from Gattuso’s cross was misdirected. Van Nistelrooy ambitiously tried his luck but his effort bobbled harmlessly straight at Buffon.
On 17 minutes Holland missed a fantastic chance as Kuyt slipped Van Nistelrooy through on goal. The Real Madrid man rounded Buffon but lost his balance and was forced too wide to make the chance count. At first it looked like Buffon had made contact with Ruud and that a penalty could have been on offer if the Dutchman had gone down. However, replays show that Buffon withdrew from the challenge and Van Nistelrooy, in evading, lost his balance.
Van der Vaart then volleyed over from just outside the box as Holland controlled the midfield in the early stages.
On 24 minutes Marco Materazzi had his heart in his mouth as he back flicked a header from Sneijder’s free kick just inches wide of his own post.
Moments later Holland were in front amid some controversy. Buffon punched out a corner, Sniejder smashed the ball back in, and Van Nistelrooy turned the ball in from close range. Replays showed that the forward was clearly offside, and quite how both officials failed to spot it is incredible.
Italy were enraged and Toni was booked for protesting. The forward then went down in the penalty area under pressure from Mathijsen but the referee didn’t want to know.
On the half hour Pirlo’s corner was flicked on at the near post, and Van Bronckhorst cleared off his own line. Holland countered straight down the other end, Van der Vaart hit a wonderful cross-field pass to Kuyt, who headed down to Sneijder, and the midfielder turned the ball past Buffon superbly to make it 2-0!
Italy were shell-shocked, and Di Natale fired in a vicious volley but it was straight at Van der Sar, who saved at the second attempt.
Nevertheless the Italy team was all over the place especially in defence, where there was no leadership or organisation without Cannavaro. Barzagli and Materazzi looked like they had never meet each other in their whole life.
On 42 minutes it should have been three as Van der Vaart threaded through the red sea separating the two Italy centre backs to put Van Nistelrooy clean through on goal, but Buffon kept his side in the game by saving superbly with his feet.
On the stroke of half time Di Natale had a rare attempt for the Azzurri, striking a sweet half volley over the bar from 25 yards as the Dutch went in 2-0 up at the break.
Into the second half and Italy immediately came out of the blocks, Panucci heading wide from a corner at the near post. Holland also had a chance from a corner but Ambrosini just did enough to put off Andre Ooijer at the back post.
Zambrotta burst forward from left back, and delightfully cut inside Dirk Kuyt, but he sliced his shot off target. Donadoni made a change on 54 minutes, taking off Materazzi, who was having a stinker, and bringing on Fabio Grosso, meaning that Panucci moved into the centre.
Italy were much more purposeful after the break. Toni took the ball down well and turned at shot, but it was easy for Van der Sar.
On 63 minutes Pirlo tried to catch out Van der Sar at his near post from a free kick, and his effort was not too far wide. Moments later Alessandro Del Piero replaced Di Natale as Italy desperately looked for some inspiration.
He immediately got into the action, finding an angle on the edge of the area, and hitting a trademark curler, but it was straight at the goalkeeper.
Holland were now playing a containing game, and in a rare second half effort, Van der Vaart curled a free kick over the bar. Del Piero was looking lively, and he cut inside his marker on the left and curled over the bar.
Donadoni finally introduced Cassano, strangely waiting 15 minutes from the end to introduce the volatile star in place of Camoranesi, while Van Persie replaced Van Nistelrooy for the Dutch.
Cassano showed his brilliance immediately, with a simply magnificent chipped through ball for Toni, but with only the keeper to beat, he disappointingly turned the ball well over.
Italy were dominating now, and Grosso was next to be one-on-one but again he shot straight at Van der Sar, when it seemed easier to score. The ball was then hacked away by the Dutch defence.
On 78 minutes Van der Sar pulled off a simply world class save to turn away Pirlo’s free kick. Holland went straight down the other end. Buffon saved a one-on-one from Kuyt, but the ball was put back into the box, and Van Bronckhorst headed past Buffon via a deflection off Zambrotta. It was now certainly game over.
Grosso fired over a free kick, before Dutch substitute Ibrahim Afellay nearly made it four with a searing shot that skimmed the bar.
Van Persie also went close on 88 minutes, skipping past Barzagli, before flashing a shot inches wide from the angle.
The ball just didn’t want to go in for Italy. Toni held the ball up for Ambrosini, whose shot from six yards was somehow deflected wide.
The Netherlands thus go top after what was most definitely a deserved win, while Italy are now rock bottom, and will crash out of the tournament if they lose to Romania.
Holland: Van der Sar, Boulahrouz (Heitinga 76), Ooijer, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst, De Jong, Engelaar, Sneijder, Van der Vaart, Kuyt (Affelay 81), Van Nistelrooy (Van Persie 70)
Italy: Buffon, Panucci, Barzagli, Materazzi (Grosso 55), Zambrotta, Gattuso, Pirlo, Ambrosini, Camoranesi (Cassano 75), Toni, Di Natale (Del Piero 63)