By Joe Behan
Three entertaining games were the highlights of last week’s Euro 2000 tournament. Here’s a roundup of the action:
Holland 1, Czech Republic 0
One minute from full time, we were about to chalk this one up as the most outrageous 0-0 game for years. Then the De Boer brothers intervened. Second-half substitute Ronald was pulled down by Jiri Nemec inside the box and Frank converted the penalty. The Dutch made the winning start to Euro 2000, which they needed, and the Czechs left the field stunned by a defeat that they did not deserve.
Indeed, anyone who saw this game wondered how the goal tally was kept to just one.
For 45 minutes the Dutch pounded the Czechs in a manner that harked back to their glory days of the 1970s. Then, for much of the second half, Holland were on the receiving end of a hammering of even greater severity, as the unfancied visitors suddenly woke up to the fact that they were in Euro 2000 on merit.
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With Edgar Davids barging into the box and trying to run through defenders, then ghosting past Nemec and forcing Pavel Srnicek into a fine save — both in the first five minutes — the tone was set. Sheffield Wednesday’s Srnicek performed heroics in the first half. In the 13th minute he stopped a Dennis Bergkamp 20-yarder after Patrick Kluivert had seen a shot blocked by Tomas Repka. Within moments Srnicek dived to his right to tip a Kluivert drive away, recovering brilliantly to block Boudewijn Zenden’s follow-up from a tight angle.
The Czechs were working hard to maintain some shape and discipline, but, when Bergkamp won a free kick with the most audacious piece of ball juggling on the touchline, it said everything about the gulf in class.
To get an idea of the transformation undergone by the Czech Republic at halftime, think of the Incredible Hulk. Meek, mild-mannered, almost apologetic before the break, they reemerged ready to rage against the orange machine that had tortured them for 45 minutes. Nedved hit the inside of the post with a glancing header, the ball almost spinning across the line, just before the hour mark. By then he had already driven in a low cross that Karel Poborsky missed by a stud length, tested Van der Sar with a left-foot shot, and linked up beautifully with Koller in a move that ended with the forward forcing the goalkeeper into a world-class save. A glancing header from Vladimir Smicer, which went just wide, and a shot from Nemec, against which the Dutch could offer only a Jaap Stam shot straight against Srnicek, told the story of Czech dominance. When Koller hit the bar with a looping header from Poborsky’s free kick in the 63rd minute, however, the Czechs must have felt their luck was out.
Italy 2, Turkey 1
With poor form behind them, Italy overcame a tough Turkish outfit. The Italians started the game of brightly without penetrating the Turkish defense. Things changed in the second half, with goals from Antonio Conte and a hotly disputed penalty from Inzaghi after Okan Buruk had drawn Turkey level.
Dino Zoff will want to work on finishing after the Italian strike force wasted several chances throughout the pulsating 90 minutes. The Turks will be under a little pressure to win their next game.
About 8,000 supporters erupted in fury after Scottish referee Hugh Dallas controversially awarded the penalty that was to win Italy the game, the official insisting that defender Ogun Temizkenoglu had elbowed Filippo Inzaghi as the striker darted into the box.
Before Inzaghi could dispatch his 68th-minute winner, the supporters who are fast gaining a Europe-wide reputation for being every bit as ferocious as English, German or Dutch past masters at the nefarious art of violence and disruption showered the penalty box with drink cartons and horns. As goalkeeper Rustu tried to compose himself for the kick, Italian midfielder Antonio Conte and Tayfur exchanged face slaps over the ball, encouraging a further barrage. Dallas, who appeared to have been conned into not believing that Inzaghi had, in fact, made a meal of the original incident, needed almost two minutes to secure order and the Turkish FA faces a UEFA inquest.
While the manner of Italy’s victory may have been open to dispute, there could be no doubt that Dino Zoff’s players deserved to join Belgium at the top of Group B. Twice the Turks swept goal-bound shots off their line and twice the bar was rattled, first from a header by Francesco Totti, then from Alessandro Del Piero, whose first touch of the ball as a substitute was a brilliant, 30-yard free-kick.
The Italians, so despondent on their Euro 2000 arrival following a warm-up defeat by Norway and an unimpressive qualification, were watched by an Azzurri support that mirrored their team’s worries, being outnumbered three to one by the Turks. Yet much of the paranoia of Zoff, his team and their fans was lifted by the side’s attacking play.
Inzaghi and Totti could each have scored at least twice as the Turks — awakening as a serious force in European football — worked desperately to contain their rivals’ quick, attacking thrusts, many of which were inspired by Udinese’s Stefano Fiore, his country’s new midfield orchestrator. Zoff, however, will still be worried that, at the back, Italy often looked fragile, and Turkey, hardly Europe’s best attacking force, had several opportunities to embarrass the country that has not won a European Championship since 1968.
Okan’s equalizer was a perfect case in point. The smallest man on the field was allowed a free header inside the six-yard box to meet Sergen’s free kick. Sergen himself threw away a marvelous opportunity in only the 14th minute, firing wide from what at the time was an Italian-free zone.
Conte showed how it should be done, opening the scoring with an enterprising overhead kick in the 53rd minute after Rustu had palmed away an Inzaghi header.
Belgium 2, Sweden 1
Three goals, stacks of action and the home fans singing as if the Euro silver were already on the sideboard, happy the tournament was blessed by such a start. Belgium are nobody’s idea of champions and they began like a team who would not dream of arguing with that assessment. But they worked at their game, discovered a fine vein of form and ultimately overcame a nation they had failed to beat in almost half a century.
Goals either side of halftime from Bart Goor and Emile Mpenza worked the trick, and while the softest of replies from Johan Mjallby gave the Swedes reason to hope, justice was done.
In truth, it was difficult to imagine the Belgians disrupting that sequence. While they offered the most incisive player afield in Gert Verheyen, operating wide on the right and running with strength and purpose, they seemed to find the reality of playing at home an uncommonly onerous burden. Then, after 37 minutes, Verheyen forced the first chink, winning space and floating a cross that Mpenza headed high. The crowd came to life and their enthusiasm was riotously rewarded six minutes later. Roland Nilsson was caught in possession by Goor, who strode on to thump a drive past Magnus Hedman at the near post. The advantage was doubled a few seconds into the second half when Branko Strupar played a cleverly angled ball into the path of Mpenza, who took a couple of strides and exploded an emphatic drive. When Filip De Wilde in the Belgian goal stumbled over a simple back pass and Mjallby scored the easiest goal we shall see this month.