Holland’s game plan in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Serbia Montenegro was simple: keep giving the ball to Arjen Robben and see what happens.
Chelsea’s outside left is that scariest of sights for a defender: a forward who dribbles at pace and with intention. On 17 minutes a lob from Robin van Persie sent him sprinting beyond the Serb defence to slot home, but he plagued Serbia constantly.
Robben can beat a man on either side, and when his notional marker Nenad Djordjevic was substituted before half-time, it may have been with dizziness. In the second half, Igor Duljaj got only slightly more grip on Robben. “I was lucky he was one of ours today,” said his coach Marco van Basten.
But Holland’s reliance on Robben – and on their near infallible keeper Edwin van der Sar, winning his 110th cap – risks sliding into dependency. The sight of an orange-filled stadium on a scorching German afternoon recalled Holland’s happy days here in 1974 and 1988, but the team itself seldom did.
Ruud van Nistelrooy was usually the only Dutchman in Serbia’s penalty box, and his appalling game seemed to confirm Manchester Untied’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s judgment of him. Once he tried a shot on the turn from 45 yards. On 68 minutes he was replaced by Dirk Kuyt, who ran about as many metres in his allotted spell as any other forward did all game.
Wesley Sneijder, Holland’s supposed playmaker, was frequently their worst passer and may disappear from the line-up.
Holland’s great worry is their defence. In the centre, Joris Mathijsen can mark but not pass, while full backs Giovanni van Bronckhorst and John Heitinga can pass but not mark. Van Bronckhorst in particular was a liability, once marking Savo Milosevic on the wrong side as is common in children’s football. Nor did any defender push up to bolster midfield as Dutch defenders traditionally do. Serbia’s other Djordjevic, shaven-headed Predrag, plagued Holland’s flanks with excellent passes. Van Basten said the heat tired his men.
Serbia attacked more than expected, and made several chances. In extra time of the first half, their substitute Ognjen Koroman hit a first-time drive narrowly over after Milosevic patted back to him.
For Holland, Robben three times came within a yard of scoring, on each occasion cutting inside before aiming a low shot just past the post. Van Basten complained: “Every game in the last few months we have created a lot of chances but did not score many goals.”
Koroman could have equalised on 71 minutes when he strolled past Van Bronckhorst but his shot was saved in two attempts by Van der Sar. The match could easily have finished 4-3. Equally pleasurable was that other footballing thrill, the sight of a referee falling over: Markus Merk did when Mark van Bommel shoved him out of his way.
The Dutch emerged afterwards talking with uncharacteristic awe of Argentina’s 2-1 win over Ivory Coast that they watched on television on Saturday. Group C is shaping up as the “Group of Death”. Serbia are not dead yet, but not at all well.