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Both Portugal and the Netherlands had everything to play for in their game at Metalist Stadium in Kharkov, Ukraine. A win would essentially secure qualification for the Portuguese. The Netherlands required at least a two goal winning margin as well as hoping the in-form Germans could beat Denmark in their last group game.
With the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben in their squad, the Netherlands are a side always capable of producing excellent attacking displays. They set about doing just that when they took the lead in the 11th minute. Robben fed the ball to Rafael van der Vaart on the edge of the penalty area, and the midfielder curled the ball into the top corner, beyond the reaches of the beleaguered Rui Patricio.
Often criticized for their defending, the Netherlands were lucky to still be leading after twenty minutes. Poor defending allowed Cristiano Ronaldo, Helder Postiga and Raul Meireles to all have early attempts, although all three failed to test Maarten Stekelenburg in the Dutch goal.
So often the hero for Real Madrid, Ronaldo came close to doing the same for Portugal when he beat his marker to meet Nani‚Äôs cross, but his header, albeit powerful, was aimed close to Stekelenburg. The Dutch goalkeeper made an impressive reflex save, continuing to leave Ronaldo goalless so far at the tournament.
His wait was not a long one, however, as he leveled the scores for his side in the 27th minute. He timed his run to perfection to collect Joao Pereira‚Äôs through ball into the area and calmly slotted the ball past the onrushing Stekelenburg.
Despite starting more brightly, the Netherlands were looking outclassed at the half time whistle with Portugal, and more specifically Ronaldo, growing into the game as it progressed. The interval offered a chance for the Netherlands to regroup and attempt to re-establish the dominance they enjoyed at the beginning of the first half – a must if they were to have any chance of progressing into the knockout stages of the tournament.
A few tactical changes, including the switching of Robben to the left wing and Robin van Persie to the right, allowing Sneijder to hover behind the striker and attempt to pick up the ball in the space between the defense and the midfield, seemed to breathe life into the Dutch. Yet they still seemed to lack the final pass or composure to unlock the Portuguese defense.
With time running out, the Dutch threw caution to the wind, bringing in Ibrahim Affelay for Jetro Willems, weakening their defense to bring on the extra attacker. Their defensive frailties were soon realized when Ronaldo scored his second of the night after being given far too much time on the ball in the Dutch penalty area.
Credit should be given to the Dutch for their unwillingness to give up on the game, but with just fifteen minutes left to play and three goals needed to put them into a position to qualify from the group, it was a case of too little too late. The Dutch succumbed to a 2-1 loss to Portugal.
Portugal manager Paulo Bento will be thrilled not only with the attacking incision displayed by his team, but also their defensive discipline. With the knockout rounds looming, the resurgence in form of Ronaldo has to be the biggest positive from the game and will have quarter-final opponent Czech Republic worried.