Monday, March 30, 2009

ArenA Diary (Notes from Holland v Scotland)

It all started out so positively.

A lively start to the game saw our midfield dominate completely, with our two holding midfielders able to close down the opposition and steal the ball from under their feet. Given time on the ball to pause and look for our wingers getting into forward attacking positions, their defence-splitting passes found their target with consummate ease, like a hot knife through butter. With no answer to our incisive, relentless attacking play, it was no wonder that we were 5-0 up at half-time, cruising to a victory our stylish play deserved.

The second half promised more goals, but with another important 'must win' game next week, the manager decided to put the foot on the brake: the defence sat further back allowing the opposition to come forward more, hoping to catch our opponents on the break. But the trust that the manager placed in our two center-backs proved well founded. Apart from two scary moments at the end - a ball through the middle of the park was allowed to get through was followed shortly afterwards by a teasing cross that found its target, both expertly saved by the keeper who, despite the one-sidedness of the game, kept the concentration levels high - we deserved the win.

So that took care of my daughters hockey game. Later on that evening, I had the pleasure of sitting amongst 52,000 Dutch fans in a packed Amsterdam ArenA to watch Scotland get pumped 3-0 by Holland.

I'll not bore you with an intricate breakdown of the game because quite frankly, from my seat - section 117, row E, seat 36, roughly level with the corner flag - I was not up high enough to see the formation throughout the game. Instead, I'll share with you my thoughts as the game progressed.
  • Scotland fans are the best in the world. Holland fans are pretty good too. The atmosphere outside the ground before the game was cracking. Lots of booze, lots of men in kilts, lots of men (and women) in orange. No hassle, no fighting, no segregation.
  • I nearly cried three times during this game. The first time was when 'Flower of Scotland', the national anthem was played. If I hadn't torn my vocal chords to shreds singing along to '500 Miles' by The Proclaimers just 5 minutes before the anthem was played, you'd have heard me above everyone else.
  • The second time I nearly cried was when I heard the Dutch starting eleven.
  • Ross McCormack and Nigel de Jong are two of the 'chunkiest' players I've ever seen.
  • Jings. That's Arjen Robben. And there's Dirk Kuyt. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Oh, and there's Wesley Sneijder and Mark van Bommel. And that's Robin van Persie walking 50 meters from where I'm sitting. I wonder if he can hear me. Robin! Robin! Robin! Roooobiinnn. You're a fanny! Naw, he didn't hear me. Most of row E to A did though. Flying the flag lads, flying the flag.
  • Reading the papers after the game, every British paper said that Caldwell's goal should have stood, while every Dutch paper said the goal was rightly disallowed. So much for unbiased reporting.
  • It was a poor game for the Dutch also. The result flattered them, the 2-0 coming through poor defending, not classy Dutch play. Aside from those goals, Holland had very few chances.
  • I understand now when football pundits describe Dirk Kuyt as some kind of deranged labrador. The man runs around from left to right, up and down and back again chasing, and never quite getting, an imaginary stick.
You can forgive George Burley this game. A squad decimated by injury, patched together at short notice. Injuries to Stephen McManus left Gary Caldwell without his Celtic team-mate in the heart of the defence. Cristophe Berra, formerly of Hearts and now of the Wolves was brought in to replace him, a move fraught with danger as Berra had yet to start a competitive international for Scotland.

On the right, Graham Alexander had a torrid time against Robben and failed to act when Huntelaar got free to score, while Naymsith took over from where Alexander left off when Robben switched wings in the second half. Alan McGregor should have done better with the two goals conceded from open play. There are some that argue that McGregor was impeded for the second goal (I couldn't see from where I was sitting), but one wonders how well Craig Gordon would have dealt with the crosses that McGregor wouldn't come for.

Of the midfield (McCormack, Fletcher, Brown, Ferguson, Teale), only McCormack got time and space, managing to make some progress going forward but the final ball - as always - too poor to be of any use. Teale, I'm ashamed to say, I've never heard of, Fletcher (the only 'top level' player in the squad, shown left) and Brown where both poor, and Kenny Miller should have done better with that chance he had in the opening minutes of the first half.

No-one expected Scotland to win this game. A 3-0 defeat is progress of sorts (it was 6-0 last time out), and the pressure is now on Burley and his men to get a win against Iceland on Wednesday night. Nothing short of victory will do now for Scotland and the hope is that Burley will at least put out an attacking 4-4-2 if he wants to get out of Hampden, let alone the qualifiers alive. The hope is that our defensive options are more plentiful, though you'd have hoped that the back four that lined up against Holland will have less trouble with Iceland.

The only question then is who to bring up front with Miller. McFadden is out, Kris Boyd is still sulking, leaving only Garry O'Connor (himself only just back from injury) or Chris Iwelumo (whose height we could have used on Saturday and whose shameful miss against Norway could mean the difference between getting out of this group or not ).

All is not lost, but we've got to pick up points from the remaining games. Iceland and Macedonia have still come to Hampden, as do Holland in the last game of the qualifiers. By that time we can only hope that there's enough distance between us and the team in third to make the final game against the Dutch a formality. We certainly would not want a repeat of Saturday night at Hampden, otherwise expect the tar and feathers to be out.

Oh, and the third time I nearly cried? That would be towards the end of the game, with 5 minutes to go, 3-0 down, and the stadium starting to empty. From high above me to the right, in amongst the Scotland support, a lone bagpipe could be heard playing 'Flower of Scotland'. It brought a lump to my throat, so it did.

And I make no apologies for that - football does that to you.

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