Dressed in their new black away strip, Holland entered the orange-coloured De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam to a pounding disco beat - decibels to drag the Dutch out of the doldrums.
The Oranje’s recent track record looked bleak: six matches, one win. Wednesday’s friendly against Slovakia had to be the turning point. It was Holland’s third pre-Euro 2012 friendly within eight days, with the first two ending in defeat: 3-2 away against Bayern Munich and 2-1 at home against Bulgaria.
High expectation among the demanding Dutch fans blended with growing impatience and concern. Prior to the match, Holland manager Bert van Marwijk had expressed irritation about criticism from pundits and predecessors. He countered by fielding what could well be the starting line-up for the Oranje’s Euro 2012 opening match against Denmark, with the possible exception of Wilfred Bouma who replaced the injured Joris Mathijsen as centre-back. Also not included were Holland’s topscorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and most-capped player Rafael van der Vaart.
Holland got off to an unfortunate start, with a head-to-head collision of its two centre-backs, leaving the team with nine men while the duo were treated along the touchline. This almost led to an early Slovakia goal when a Hamsik header hit the crossbar. Holland responded in kind, with Nigel de Jong heading the ball just wide of the goal. And then, just seven minutes into the match, Ibrahim Afellay saw his cross from the left deflected by Kornel Salata: 1-0 to Holland.
Slovakia hadn’t come to Rotterdam to get trounced. However, the men in white left Holland's fast-paced attackers ample space. Both sides could easily have netted another goal before half-time.
Van der Vaart magic
The second half also started with an unfortunate incident, with playmaker Wesley Sneijder leaving the pitch after a nasty Salata tackle from behind. In came Rafael van der Vaart and a fresh infusion of creativity. His free-kick from the edge of the penalty area curled to the goal, only to hit the crossbar on 71 minutes. Just five minutes later, Van der Vaart sneaked inside the crowded box to tap the ball past the goalkeeper: 2-0.
After the match, Holland coach Bert van Marwijk said he was pleased with the result and lavished praise on Afellay.
“We’re complete at last, just two weeks before the tournament. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see how fast Mathijsen recovers. I knew this pre-Euro period wouldn’t be easy. But now we have the team more or less in shape. I’m very glad Afellay is fit. He’s an exceptional talent and he’s put up a sterling performance.”
16 million pundits
Asked whether he had been annoyed by the amount of criticism leveled against him in recent weeks, Van Marwijk sighed and said:
“That’s football for you, and it’s part of the job. I’m well aware that there are 16 million football experts in this country. But sometimes, I do get irritated: please let me do my job, which is to get the team prepared for the first group match against Denmark.”
His Slovak counterpart, Stanislav Griga, complimented the home side on a solid performance:
“The difference between Holland and us was quite clear during the match. The Dutch have outstanding technical skills, their control of the ball is excellent and they’re extremely dangerous when they get close to the penalty area. All this makes them one of the big favourites in the upcoming European championship.”
Holland starting line-up:
1-Maarten Stekelenburg, 2-Gregory van der Wiel, 3-John Heitinga, 5-Wilfred Bouma, 14-Stijn Schaars, 6-Mark van Bommel, 8-Nigel de Jong, 10-Wesley Sneijder, 20-Ibrahim Afellay, 16-Robin van Persie, 11-Arjen Robben
Slovakia starting line-up :
1-Ján Mucha, 2-Peter Pekarík, 16-Kornel Saláta, 15-Tomáš Hubocan, 8-Dušan Švento, 4-Karim Guédé, 5-Marek Cech, 9-Miroslav Stoch, 17-Marek Hamšík, 6-Michal Breznanik, 11-Marek Bakoš