In wave after wave they came but not one could find a way through.
Not Robin van Persie.
Not Wesley Sneijder.
Not Arjen Robben.
Not Ibrahim Afellay nor Klaas Jan Huntelaar, the Bundesliga’s top scorer.
Despite fielding eight of the 11 players that started the 2010 World Cup final in Johannesburg two short years ago, the Dutch fell victim to Michael Krohn-Dehli’s lone goal for the first real shock of Euro 2012, and quite possibly one of the biggest shocks in European championship history.
But then Denmark is no stranger to upsetting the apple – or in this case Oranje – cart.
Exactly 20 years ago, former Denmark coach Richard Moller Nielsen had mere weeks to prepare his team for the tournament. Due to sanctions against war-torn Yugoslavia, UEFA handed Denmark the final spot in the eight-team European championship tournament in Sweden, but no one could have predicted what would happen next.
After getting out of a group containing England, France and the hosts, Denmark was surely no match for the defending champion Dutch – one of the greatest teams Holland has ever assembled.
But Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp found that the scrappy underdog was not about to lie down in the semi-final, and once goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel had denied Van Basten in the shootout, the Danes were on course to a final encounter against world champion Germany.
And the fairytale story continued in the showpiece event, as the little-fancied team from Hans Christian Andersen’s homeland frustrated, harried and hampered Juergen Klinsmann and Co., riding its luck to a 2-0 victory and the greatest sporting success in Danish history.
Can it do it again? Anything’s possible, but it’s unlikely.
The European championship is now a 16-team affair – it expands to 24 in four years time in France – and as a result there are more quality teams to get past, in Denmark’s case Portugal on Wednesday.
Beating the Dutch is likely beyond the Danes’ wildest dreams – and certainly blows Group B wide open – but how many times will a team of Holland’s quality fire 28 shots at an opposition net and hit the target a mere eight times.
The Danes have to take some of the credit for that. The centre defensive pairing of Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger were imperious at times marshalling the penalty area, and on the occasions the Dutch did penetrate – Huntelaar going clean through on 74 minutes for instance – goalkeeper Stephan Andersen was there to bail out his teammates. But generally they kept the Oranje wave outside the 18-yard box, forcing the Dutch to take pot shots from distance – nearly all of them flying high and/or wide.
The Netherlands, one of the pre-tournament favourites, now get a few days off to refresh and recalibrate before facing Germany in a vital game next Wednesday. There may also be some changes, particularly up front. After scoring 37 goals in just 10 games in qualifying, Holland entered this tournament as one of the most lethal attacking forces on the planet. But despite scoring 12 of those goals, Huntelaar started the game on the bench, yielding his place to Van Persie, who was regarded as a man in form after scoring 37 goals for Arsenal.
It didn’t show. The English Football of the Year had seven chances, hitting the target a mere three times, but he was far from alone in the profligacy stakes. Afellay had five chances, hitting the target once, and Robben – who has endured the brunt of the criticism for Bayern Munich’s Champions League defeat to Chelsea last month – fared little better, having six opportunities to hit the back of the net and firing all by one wide of the target.
Group B was christened the Group of Death, and after Saturday’s 1-0 loss the Dutch are already staring down the barrel of a gun.