The Netherlands exceeded expectations in Wednesday’s friendly against Italy, earning a well-played 1-1 draw. Though the score read even after the final whistle, Italy was fortunate to earn a tie after substitute Marco Veratti equalized in stoppage time. The Dutch came in with an inexperienced squad while Italy played many of their veterans, including many who starred in their runner-up finish in the 2012 European Championships.
For long stretches of the first half the Dutch dominated possession, out-gaining Italy overall by a margin of 54 percent to Italy’s 46 percent. The Italians were keen to let the Dutch have the ball in the first half and to sit back and defend. This resulted in a few excellent chances for the oranje in the first 45 minutes. Thanks to Gianluigi Buffon’s acrobatics in net the oranje were only able to muster one goal in the first 45, a brilliant volley by Jeremain Lens in which Buffon had no chance of getting to. The Italians best opportunity came when Mario Balotelli made a well timed run, beat Daryl Janmaat, and was found by Andrea Pirlo, who played a great ball over the top, only to have Balotelli misfire.
The second half started out with each side making substitutions. The Dutch brought on Arjen Robben for Robin Van Persie and Jonathan De Guzman for Jordy Clasie. The Azzurri subbed Alessandro Florenzi for Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Diamanti for Antonio Candreva. The second half produced free flow play and both sides produced chances in the second 45. Perhaps none better than when Arjen Robben raced down the wing as he often does and fired a shot which beat Buffon but could not beat the post, going just wide. However, in stoppage time Veratti was able to was able to beat Dutch goalie Tim Krul on a clever left-footed finish. Krul went to ground a bit early and Veratti fired right above the keeper into the back of the net.
Both managers used this friendly as somewhat of an experiment, trying out new tactics, formations, and getting a glimpse of some new talent for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Louis van Gaal, the Dutch manager has to be happy with what he saw of of his side. A back-line that was absolutely exposed in last summer’s European Championships looked confident and cohesive as a unit, limiting Italy to 2 shots on target all game. Ajax defender Daley Blind made his first start for the oranje, following in his father Danny’s footsteps. Danny Blind captained the 1995 Ajax squad which won a European championship and also made 42 appearances for the national team. Danny Blind is also an assistant on manager Louis van Gaal’s staff. However, the biggest question mark heading into today’s game for the Dutch had to be the midfield. Big names and typical mainstays were nowhere to be found. Rather, Van Gaal elected to start PSV man Kevin Strootman alongside Jordy Clasie and Adam Maher, all relatively inexperienced in the international game and young at 19, 20, and 22 respectively. Whether or not this is a changing of the guard remains to be seen. All three impressed, with Maher and Strootman making the best cases for serious consideration leading up to Brazil in 2014. Strootman showed himself as a box-box midfielder who could fill the void of players like Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel who each played critical roles in the Dutch success in South Africa in 2010. Clasie gave fans a slight glimpse of why he has been labeled the, “Dutch Xavi” in some circles. Also, just when oranje fans thought Arjen Robben had given the national team all he had, he comes up with a class performance. Robben dazzled with his runs up and down the flank today, keeping the Italian defense on their heels and showing why he is still one of the most feared attacking players in the world. It is likely if he stays healthy he could fit into Louis van Gaals’s plans for 2014, but that is a big if considering the luck he has had with injuries in the past.
After a dismal performance in last year’s European Championship’s Louis van Gaal looks to have the Dutch on the right track for 2014. It may be a bit early to coin them as serious contenders, but if nothing else Louis van Gaal has helped to re-instill the idea of attacking, free flowing, beautiful play that seemed to be missing last summer.