John Ford
Mon 9 June 2008

Shexy football the winner as classy Holland ease past Italy

It was the first real test of Euro 2008's supposed group of death and after 90-plus minutes of breathtaking football, Holland emerged not only as winners but also as real contenders to escape Group C and make a strong challenge for the Championship.

With Orange and Blue colouring Bern's Wankdorf stadium, Euro 2008 sprung into life thanks to one of the tournament's all-time great matches.

The first opportunity fell to Holland's Ruud Van Nistelrooy who latched onto a Dirk Kuyt pass before attempting to round Italy's Gianluigi Buffon. The veteran 'keeper looked to have made contact with the striker but Van Nistelrooy stayed on his feet but the ball skewed out of his path and the chance was gone.

It was on 26 minutes when the deadlock was broken and when the games biggest controversial incident occurred.

Holland's Rafael Van Der Vaart swung in a delicious free-kick which eventually fell to the feet of Wesley Sneijder who rifled in a shot which was poked home by Van Nistelrooy to furious calls for offside from Italian players and supporters alike.

Replays proved that the strike should have been ruled out for offside but that didn't matter to the Dutch support who - already in full swing before th opener - raised the noise level up another notch as Van Nistelrooy rushed over to salute the fans.

Italy wasted no time in pressing for an equaliser and earned themselves a corner which Andrea Pirlo swung in and after clearing from underneath his own crossbar Gio Van Bronckhorst raced down the left flank to receive a cross-field ball from Van Der Vaart before spraying a pass back out to the right onto the head of Kuyt who showed great balance to nod the ball back across goal into the path of Sneijder who cooly swept in a right-footed shot past Buffon on his 24th birthday.

The Azzurri in truth weren't playing that badly but Holland, so often underachievers at major tournaments looked unstoppable.

Ruud could and probably should have killed the game off minutes before the break after collecting a magnificent ball from Sneijder but Buffon pulled off a truly World class save to keep the game just about in Italy's reach.

Italy came forward with wave after wave of attack and on 65 minutes Alessandro Del Piero was thrown into the mix and almost made the difference immediately.

The ageing striker was brought on for Antonio Di Natale and forced fellow veteran Edwin Va Der Sar into a smart save almost immediately, soon after he was found by Pirlo but this time he sent his effort well wide of the target.

Italy's strikers were struggling to find any form with Luca Toni summing up their evening with 15 minutes remaining, firing substitute Antonio Cassano's pass into the Italian faithful behind the goal who must have been resigned to defeat by this point.

The Dutch certainly weren't looking as though they had swapped boots for clogs and continued to press for the killer goal which eventually came 10 minutes before the final whistle.

Pirlo fired in a sweet free-kick which would have beaten a lesser 'keeper no doubt but Van Der Sar rolled back the years to throw himself in the way of the shot and as Holland swept forward, the inevitable became a reality.

Sneijder threaded a lovely ball into the feet of Van Bronckhorst who found Kuyt in turn, a loose touch took the Liverpool man out wide and gave Buffon enough time to rush out and block his effort but the luck was in for Kuyt as the ball fell back into his path and the striker lofted a ball up for the head of Van Bronckhorst who guided a header past Buffon as Gianluca Zambrotta failed to acrobatically clear off the line.

The result will have many betting on Holland for the title after their first victory over Italy in 30 years and the Azzurri's joint heaviest defeat in a major tournament's finals.

If anybody doubted that this years Euro's were going to be about as exciting as Switzerland's nightlife, the event's in Bern on Monday evening should silence those critics and act as a catalyst for Holland to escape the 'group of death'.

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