It was a cold night in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. Yet Zimbru Stadium was filled to capacity and brimming over, a densely woven human quilt of black and blue winter wear with a few orange patches.
Some 300 Dutch fans had ventured the long journey east to join the 10,000 or more Moldovans in the tiny arena. Hundreds of others paid a special fee for a bird’s eye view from the balconies and rooftop of the adjacent 16-storey high-rise apartment block towering over the stadium.
Domestic interest in the Euro 2012 qualifier has been huge. The encounter with the World Cup runners-up received widespread media coverage and tickets were sold out within just two hours last Sunday.
Moldova’s footballing aspirations were raised by two excellent performances in its two previous Euro 2012 encounters, leading to a surprise 2-0 home win over Finland and a narrow 2-1 defeat in Hungary.
Romanian gaffer Gavrin Balint is widely seen as the mastermind of this unprecedented achievement. At the start of the year, he took charge of the Moldovan national team and introduced stricter discipline, a new line-up and a more combative playing style.
His Dutch counterpart Bert van Marwijk was forewarned. With no fewer than seven players injured, he knew the match wouldn’t be easy. His decision to drop key midfielder Nigel de Jong from the squad following a reckless foul on a Newcastle United player added to his problems. In addition, there was the unresolved issue of players’ fatigue in the wake of this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.
In the end, De Jong’s absence proved to be a blessing in disguise. His replacement, Rafael Van der Vaart, added offensive finesse to his task as sweeper in front of the Holland defence. It was Van der Vaart's intelligent through-ball that enabled striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar to score the only goal in the 37th minute, his sixth in three Group E qualifying matches. But the tally could have doubled if "The Hunter" had netted every solid chance he got against Moldova.
Other players too could have extended the lead. John Heitinga, for instance, rattled the crossbar with a header after the restart. A perfect shot by Wesley Sneijder curled to the top left corner where it was cleared in spectacular fashion by goalkeeper Stanislav Namasco. And both Dirk Kuyt and Gregory van der Wiel had the chance to seal the points but fluffed their lines from just outside the five-yard area.
The score should have been much higher, Holland manager Bert van Marwijk admitted after the match:
“We kept Moldova’s hopes alive right until the last minute. A lucky high ball could have fallen their way in the box and we could have ended up with a draw”.
Mr Van Marwijk praised the Moldovan team for their defensive skills and physical strength. Every team will face tough opposition in Chisinau, he said.
Assessing the physical wellbeing of his own men, the Holland coach said he had seen a remarkably fit team, able to dominate the entire match, with 70 percent possession. “We’re becoming more stable”, he added.
“We’re building on the World Cup experience and we’re trying to make the team stronger. I’m a great admirer of the beautiful game, of attractive, even frivolous football. But the basis should be a solid defence in which everyone has to play their part. It’s a team effort and if some players opt out, you become vulnerable. Today, though, I saw a great collective performance.”
Moldova 0 - Netherlands 1
1-Maarten Stekelenburg, 2-Gregory van der Wiel, 3-John Heitinga, 4-Joris Mathijsen, 5-Erik Pieters, 7-Dirk Kuyt, 6-Mark van Bommel, 10-Wesley Sneijder, 18-Rafael van der Vaart, 9-Klaas Jan Huntelaar; 11 - Ibrahim Affelay
Substitution: Urby Emmanuelson for Ibrahim Afellay
1- Stanislav Namaşco, 3 - Victor Golovatenco, 5 - Alexandru Epureanu, 6 - Petru Racu, 7 - Evgheni Cebotari, 10 - Viorel Frunza, 13 - Semion Bulgaru, 14 - Vitalie Bordian, 15 - Anatolie Doroş, 16 - Alexandru Suvorov, 18 - Vadim Bolohan
Substitutions: Igor Bugaev, Valeriu Andronic and Nicolae Josan for Viorel Frunza, Evgheni Cebotari and Anatolie Doroş