- 13 Jun 08, 11:15 PM
Berne - 708 miles travelled
Having beaten World Cup holders Italy 3-0 and thrashed finalists France 4-1, the Dutch have made a mockery of the so-called Group of Death - and in doing so have clearly outlined their credentials as potential Euro 2008 champions.
The atmosphere inside the Stade de Suisse on Friday evening in Berne was sensational as the magnificent Dutch supporters lapped up another scintillating performance from their team.
Many had questioned the Dutch's prospects of qualifying from a group that contained such seasoned sides as Italy and France.
But the Dutch players have responded brilliantly to coach Marco van Basten's attacking philosophy and bold substitutions.
Take, for example, the fact that left-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst scored against the Italians with an 80th-minute header from six yards.
And consider also the decision to introduce Arjen Robben for the more defensive Orlando Engelaar at half-time against France with the game finely balanced at 1-0 to the Netherlands.
Van Basten followed that move with the introduction of Robin van Persie shortly afterwards - and his ambition was soon rewarded when Robben crossed for his fellow substitute to volley home.
The celebrations from the bench indicated a squad far removed from the internal squabbles of previous years - and the constant clapping and high-fives further underline this point.
As Van Basten explained: "The coaching staff have a very good relationship with all the players. The atmosphere is very nice."
Uefa president Michel Platini said on the eve of the tournament that he wanted to see players play without inhibition - and in Holland he currently has a realisation of his vision.
Ruud van Nistelrooy may be a more traditional centre forward than previous Dutch strikers, but, with Robben and Van Persie constantly switching flanks and Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder providing craft and guile from midfield, Holland have a team rich in attacking promise.
Question marks remain, of course. The Dutch are just two games into the tournament and we have yet to see how they respond if they fall behind. But for their fans, most of whom are currently celebrating with great abandon on the streets of Berne, all is well with the world.
The same cannot be said of the French. Before the Group C game, a French journalist told me why he thought Les Bleus had been so dreadfully poor in their opening match against Romania.
He explained that the prevalent footballing philosophy in France is known as 'bloc equipe', where the focus is on a very solid tactical formation.
With a World Cup (1998) and a European Championship triumph (2000) in the past decade, not to mention another World Cup final appearance in 2006, such an approach has clearly paid off.
But without Zinedine Zidane's flair and guile to unlock opposition defences anymore, France are looking rigid and defensive, unable to make the most of their attacking options.
France coach Raymond Domenech tried to remedy this against the Dutch by playing just one recognised striker in Thierry Henry but with the talented Franck Ribery roaming behind him.
Ribery covered a huge amount of ground and constantly sought out the ball, but, as Arsene Wenger explained last week, Ribery and Zidane are very different players.
Ribery has pace, can dribble and can burst through a defence. But Zizou was the finest modern example of a player who could get the most out of people around him. His reading of the game, sublime passing and incredible technique were ideally suited to releasing his team-mates and exploiting space.
It might have been an extremely miserable Friday the 13th for the French, but all is not lost just yet.
They created many more chances against Holland than they mustered against Romania, and Van Basten admitted after the game that his side had been under sustained pressure towards the end of the first half.
"Today we were a little bit lucky and we got the goals at good times," he said.
The game could have been very different had France equalised. Henry, in particular, wasted one very good opportunity in the second half when he tried to lob Edwin van der Sar.
But now the French must face Italy in the group of death's game of death.
Italy, notoriously slow starters at major tournaments, have also disappointed and, but for Gianluigi Buffon's dramatic penalty save against Romania, could already be out of the competition.
The stakes could not be higher, then, especially for Domenech and Italian rival Roberto Donadoni.
Some French journalists I have spoken to believe Domenech's position will become virtually untenable if his team serve up another limp display.
But there is one other very important scenario that could render the fixture meaningless.
Of all the predictions and permutations ahead of the tournament, only the bravest gave Romania a chance of qualification from Group C.
However, having taken a point off both Italy and France and with the prospect of a game against a Dutch side that has already qualified to come, they must now be regarded as serious contenders for the second spot.
And that would make a mockery of those who say tournament football has become predictable and conservative.
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