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Monday, June 26, 2006 - 19:01 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

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Battle of Nuremburg

Crazy, crazy game.

Just one goal like the yawn-inducing England match, but incomparable in terms of entertainment value. Eat your heart out, Argentina! A six goal thrashing of an inferior team isn't a patch on this.

Part of the reason behind the spice was that both competitors were tantalizingly evenly matched. Germany, other than enjoying the advantage of being hosts, had a pedigree far beyond Sweden. Ditto Argentina and Mexico, though Mexico put in a hell of a fight. England, though nowhere near their best, do have the Star of '66 above their crest, and will always be favourites against Ecuador.

But Portugal and Holland? They are worthy contenders to the unwanted title of best team never to have won the biggest prize. That Portugal were made such big underdogs - Singapore Pools offered around 3.40 for the win - surprised me. I couldn't have put much more than a razor blade between them.

Plenty of attacking going on from the start, then Maniche scores in the 23rd minute. The handbrakes are off, the commentators observe. One team with a precious goal to protect, the other needing to score or go home crying. Cristiano Ronaldo entertains with a totally unnecessary but undeniably beautiful behind-the-leg pass. Misguided confidence, but that's him.

A couple of hard tackles, and the Portuguese winger is off. Costinha, already on a caution, barely escapes a second yellow card with five minutes to the interval. Take him off now, I scream to Scolari, thousands of miles away. One substitute is better than one man less, and then a substitute anyway. Costinha was clearly going off the boil.

Minutes later, sure enough, Costinha does his best impression of Ricardo as he inexplicably puts his hand out to meet a high ball. Perhaps he played as a goalie in his youth? He wins the prize for Most Incredibly Stupid Act Since Beckham In 1998 by a landslide, and walks off to enjoy the luxurious solitude of the dressing room.

Eleven-man Holland against a ten-man Portugal, but with that all-important lead. Costinha making an ass of himself, Buridan's Ass results - I can't see the side with the upper hand.

Then Luis Figo, whose captain's armband does not seem to have done anything about the temperature at his forehead, drives that bit of his anatomy (hollow?) into a Holland man - after the referee had given his Portugal a freekick. He is old enough to know better, and old enough that this is certainly his swansong. The average I.Q. on the field, already some distance from triple digits, fell slightly once again.

Then Figo let his feet do the thinking, relieving the pressure on his overloaded brain. Out on the flanks, he nipped past a defender in a way that a man his age has no right doing. Boulahrouz gets ahead of him, brushes his elbow past Figo's face, and Figo falls in agony. The fox has done it, Boulahrouz is off, it's even again.

The soccer, quite good in fact, receded into the background. Deco, architect of so many brilliant moves, sparked a five-minute flurry of six yellow cards in the 73rd minute. It began with his first, and ended with his second, for being thrown to the ground by Cocu after refusing to give up the ball. Third man off. His first caution though was a consequence of the Dutch seemingly ignoring the referee's instructions at a drop ball, and retaining possession when it was common etiquette to return the ball to the Portuguese. When the stakes are this high, face is nothing.

At least it was heartening to see Deco sit and chat with Boulahrouz in the "bad boys' corner", a sign that off the pitch, there are no hard feelings. No such friendly vibes among the 19 men left, though. The Dutch, seeing their trophy hopes sinking into the mists, attacked desperately. Portugal were content with vicious breakaways.

Figo, already booked, was taken off. It would have been smart, a lesson taught by Costinha, had their goalkeeper not been flat on the ground in pain at that very moment. If Ricardo got another knock, which was more than likely under the circumstances, Portugal would have to hope that his gloves fit another player well, having used their last replacement.

Holland probably knew that there was no way through, that they were gone. Portugal, even with nine men, were more than able to hold the ball with good technique, whiling the seconds away, one by one. But why not set a record, Van Bronckhorst may have thought. He scythed someone down in the 93rd minute to tie the mark for most yellow cards in a game, and sportingly made it nine a side.

Six minutes of extra time finally hobbled by on crutches (another commentator's witticism). Portugal, badly battered, were through. England may be the only real winner here, as Portugal are certainly without Deco and Costinha for their quarterfinal match - though the latter may not be that big a loss. C. Ronaldo may be out injured. And if Portugal do somehow make it past England, the sheer number of players already booked may mean the semis have to be abandoned.

Portugal were thinking of none of that, however, as they celebrated as though they had won the World Cup itself, and not just made it into the last eight.

For the Dutch, there was only despair as they cracked again. The competition will miss the silky, if selfish, skills of Arjen Robben, and more vans than will fill an average multi-storey carpark. The darting van Persie, who made a lightning turn during the game that had two defenders falling the wrong way; van Nistelrooy, who watched with resignation as his teammates surrendered his final chance at true glory; And of course van der Sar, van Bronckhorst, van Bommel, van der Vaart and all the other assorted models and makes.

Special mention goes to Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, whose name filled the back of his jersey to nearly unreadable proportions, and reminded all of an earlier, medieval age.

And what of England? They were unconvincing, yet they won again. For all their staleness, they are among the few remaining sides to have scored in every match so far. But they had to rely once more on Beckham, who parlayed his singular gift of getting the ball where he wants, when he wants, into the only goal of the contest.

Rooney for me lived up to his hype, as he never looked guardable by a single marker. Too bad he was isolated. A wondrous piece of control on the touchline, followed by a nutmeg so natural that no one saw it coming, should have been good value for an assist. Unfortunately, the man waiting in the middle was Frank "can't miss from two yards out, can he?" Lampard. Frankly, that guy only produces for Chelski.



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