Coach happy but Dutch hot shots fail to spark

IT looks like we are relying on Brazil’s Samba stars to put some pizzazz into this World Cup after the Netherlands, the team tipped by many to provide the most entertaining football in the tournament, needed an own goal to edge Denmark in their opening game and failed to reach the heights expected of them.

The Dutch were the first European team to qualify for South Africa 2010 and having demolished Hungary 6-1 in their final preparation game in Amsterdam there was real hope they could light up the finals with the kind of entertaining and inventive football that has become synonymous with the orange shirt.

Instead, however, they appeared to suffer a similar bout of tension to tournament rivals England and France as they laboured to a rather nervy 2-0 victory in Johannesburg’s Soccer City in a manner which is becoming increasingly regular here.

For all the colour and excitement off the pitch and the World Cup mania sweeping South Africa, the football has so far been something of a let down and there is huge pressure now on favourites Brazil today as they open their challenge with a match against North Korea in Pretoria.

Hopefully Kaka & Co will deliver because leaving aside Germany’s impressive victory over a weak Australian side, the action so far has been short on excitement.

The Netherlands could still provide that in future, of course, especially after Dirk Kuyt’s simple tap-in five minutes from the end doubled their lead after a bizarre own goal from Danish and fellow Liverpool defender Daniel Agger put them ahead in the 46th minute.

Victory should at least bolster confidence in the Dutch camp and there was evidence in the final minutes, when Ibrahim Affalay was only denied a third goal by a spectacular goal-line clearance from Daniel Poulsen, that the orange machine was finding second gear, a point made by satisfied manager Bert van Marwijk.

He said: “The first half wasn’t as good as we wanted to be. We wanted to play beautiful football and we couldn’t do it. But the second half was excellent and at 2-0 you could see what we are capable of. We could have scored a third or fourth and from time to time you could see how good we could be.

“People say van Persie, van der Vaart and Schneider can’t play together but in the warm-up matches we scored 10 goals in two games and all three players played a part in that. Also we have a lot of depth because we have weapons on the bench.”

It will be interesting to see if those weapons are firing more freely in the Netherlands’ second match against Japan, victors over Cameroon last night, and whether they can grow into the role of tournament darlings in future.

There was certainly little sign of that in a frustrating first half and it, needed a bizarre own goal, the ball cannoning off Agger’s back from a header from his own team-mate Simon Poulsen, to bring it to life.

From that moment on there was only ever going to be one winner, a point emphasised when lively substitute Eljero Elia shot against a post and Kuyt completed the formalities from close range.

For Kuyt it was a hard-fought victory and the Liverpool striker believes the World Cup will soon warm up as players become more used to the African conditions.

“It’s very difficult at altitude,” he insisted. “If you make two sprints of 20 or 30m you take twice or three times as long to recover as normal. It makes the game look slower. I think if you watched the first half I’m sure everyone was thinking ‘oh, it’s a bit slow this game and not going the way it should be’ but it’s just the way it is here in South Africa. It was warm, the pitch was dry and it wasn’t easy.

“I think you’ve seen that already in this World Cup. The game South Africa played, which was better, was played later in the day when the sun was down and the pitch was wet. and much quicker.

“You need time to settle into playing here because it’s different and hopefully Holland will be here for a longer period and we will improve. I think we will get better and better as we get used to it.”

For the good of the tournament there will be many neutrals who hope he is right. But for now it is over to Brazil to re-enthuse the masses and remind us why football can be beautiful on the pitch as well as off it.

HOLLAND (4-2-3-1): Stekelenberg 6; van der Wiel 7, Heitinga 6, Mathijsen 8, van Bronckhorst 6, van Bommel 7, De Jong 7 (De Zeeuw 87), Kuyt 7, Sneijder 8, van der Vaart 6 (Elia 67, 7), van Persie 7 (Affelay 77, 6)

DENMARK (4-5-1): Sorensen 6, Jacobsen 5, Kjaer 5, Agger 5, S Poulsen 6, Rommedahl 6, C Poulsen 5, Kahlenberg 6 (Eriksen 73, 6), Jorgensen 6 (Gronkjaer 55, 6), Bendtner 6 (Beckmann 62, 6).

Referee: Stephane Lannoy (FRA).

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