“If we don’t beat Denmark it will all be very, very difficult,” said Wesley Sneijder, and after 90 minutes of mounting frustration the 2010 World Cup finalists already seem to be one false step away from elimination.
One thing that might give the Netherlands cause for hope, if not optimism, is that when they became European champions in 1988 they also lost 1-0 in their opening game, to Russia — who they then went on to beat in the final.
The other is that although they lost they didn’t play badly, a lot better than when they beat Denmark in the World Cup two years ago. A bad blunder by John Heitinga, a poor piece of goalkeeping by Maarten Stekelenburg and Denmark seized their one real chance of the game. The Dutch forwards then seemed to do everything but score.
They should also have had a late penalty, although that would have been harsh on a side that defended tremendously in the last quarter.
As so often the Danes raised their game. Simon Poulsen was outstanding against Arjen Robben, Simon Kjaer unrecognisable from the shambles of his season for Roma. Above all they worked as a unit.
The main worry for the Dutch is that’s exactly what they failed to do. This is a side that should be overflowing with goals. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Luuk de Jong and Robin van Persie scored 115 between them last season. In the Bundesliga, Huntelaar won the golden boot with 29 league goals for Schalke, van Persie scored one more to do the same for Arsenal.
Both players have had their ups and downs. Huntelaar had three mediocre seasons at Real Madrid, Milan and Schalke before he returned to form this past season. Van Persie is a world-class striker for the Gunners but not for his country.
For a nation that has reached three World Cup finals and gave the idea of Total Football to the world the Netherlands have a strange history of disjointed performances in major tournaments. Personal conflicts have sometimes been to blame.
Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk is not the easiest man to get on with. He is obstinate about tactics, apparently unwilling to play more than one striker. Back in his first spell at Feyenoord he had a sharp conflict with a rebellious van Persie, which was one of the reasons the player was sold.
Van Marwijk is also in the slightly odd position of having his son-in-law captaining the side. Should Mark van Bommel really be a fixture in midfield now, at the age of 35? The 22-year-old Kevin Strootman, who has just broken through at PSV Eindhoven, is the obvious candidate to replace him. Van Marwijk is an admirer, but if Strootman is to play against Germany who will he drop?
The individualism of some players against Denmark clearly riled Dutch fans. Gregory van der Wiel, hailed by some as one of Europe’s brightest prospects, gave a nightmare performance at right-back. Ibrahim Afellay faded, just as he seems to do when he plays for Barcelona. Robben produced another infuriating display, even though he came closest to equalising.
Robben at his best is a match-winner but just as in the Champions League final it seemed that he was trying to do too much himself.
By constantly cutting inside he made life far easier than it should have been for the Danish defence. Poulsen started off by pressing him high up the pitch, and that pressure helped create the goal, but later he was able to stay close to his centre-backs confident that Robben would come inside rather than using his pace to get to the byline and cross.
The one time he did get through his cross was hopelessly skewed, and he would probably have done better to shoot. It was that sort of day.
All is not lost for the men in orange. Wesley Sneijder, who has had a season to forget for Inter, was close to his best in this game: perceptive, dynamic, the ideal playmaker. Only his set-piece play and long-range shooting is not 100%. If he can get that back and if his team-mates respond then the Dutch may at least be able to postpone their flight to Amsterdam.