It was Holland’s first win over the Italians in three decades and Italy’s heaviest defeat in 25 years has left the Dutch in control of a ‘group of death’ that also includes France and Romania, whose turgid goalless draw could not have been further removed from the exhilarating encounter served up here on Monday evening.
For the Dutch coach, the manner of the victory was every bit as important as its unlikely scale. Long before the Dutch opened the scoring, it was apparent that Italy would miss the commanding influence of their injured World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro in their defence.
Marco Materazzi took Cannavaro’s place in the centre of defence but filling the former world player of the year’s boots was to prove beyond the Inter Milan veteran, who was substituted ten minutes into the second half.
Despite a defeat which will put him under severe pressure, Italy coach Roberto Donadoni voiced confidence that his players could turn things around.
Donadoni declined to criticise Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt over the decision to allow van Nistelrooy’s goal, and the official was backed up by chairman of Austria’s refereeing commission.
Gerhard Kapl said Peter Frojdfeldt had been “100 percent correct” to award the goal because injured Italy defender Christian Panucci had played the striker onside despite being behind the goalline and out of action.
There was no debate about Holland’s second goal, which provided evidence that Total Football is alive and well in the Netherlands.
Having cleared Andrea Pirlo’s corner off his own line, van Bronckhorst immediately sprinted forward to pick up a pass from Rafael van der Vart on the left and send in a cross that Dirk Kuyt knocked down for Sneijder to smash past Gianluigi Buffon.
Italy did not get going until Alessandro del Piero and Antonio Cassano entered the fray in the second half and the Dutch had Edwin van der Sar to thank for keeping out Fabio Grosso’s low drive and one of Pirlo’s trademark freekicks with a couple of superb saves.
As the Italians pressed however, gaps appeared at the back and the Dutch took advantage with another counter-attack of breathtaking fluency that finished with van Bronckhorst nodding in Dirk Kuyt’s chip with their opponents’ defence in utter disarray.
Poor starts in major tournaments are nothing new for Italy but, on this evidence, a World Cup and Euro double looks a tall order for Donadoni’s men.