England’s bright new era started really rather well for an hour at least, but in the end Stuart Pearce’s team got a harsh football lesson from the Dutch who made them pay for their mistakes.
The pair clashed heads while challenging for a Dirk Kuyt cross, from which Huntelaar scored Holland’s second. After several minutes’ treatment Huntelaar was able to walk off aided, albeit clearly dazed and with a bloody nose while Smalling, who was conscious, was stretchered off.
With those injuries and a host substitutions disrupting the rhythm of the game England some how found their way back into the match before Arjen Robben grabbed his second in injury time to inflict on England only their first defeat since they lost to France in November 2010.
England may have been expecting a performance of blood and thunder from a side managed by Stuart Pearce but what they got was an altogether more continental affair. Occasionally there were flash backs to the old England as one player or another would hoof the ball forward in the general direction of Danny Welbeck and thereby losing possession but for the first hour of the game the less-experienced England side, skippered by Scott Parker, matched Holland with the kind of slow, possession football that actually takes teams far in tournaments.
They lined up in a similar formation too, discarding the stereotypical 4-4-2 with Parker and Gareth Barry provided a solid defensive screen in front of the back four which allowed Leighton Baines and Micah Richards to advance down the wings giving the four attacking players more options.
But it was too good to last and eventually defensive naivety and Robben’s brilliance were their undoing. His first came in the 57th minute as he broke from his own half and all the way into England’s area. A neat off-the-ball run from Huntelaar took Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill out of the equation allowing Robben the freedom to strike the ball past Joe Hart.
Two minutes later and Huntelaar played the ball to Dirk Kuyt on the right and he then curled the ball into the box for Huntelaar to head home. It was his last act of the game following his and Smalling’s injuries.
At that stage it looked as if Holland might run riot but instead, with five minutes to play and the game seemingly petering out to nothing, Cahill found himself in the area and executed a delightful drag back wrong-footing Joris Mathijsen and before slotting the ball neatly past Maarten Stekelenburg. I’ll not dwell on the fact he was offside.
Ashley Young will have thought he’d secured a draw a few minutes later after he dinked the ball over Stekelenburg for the second but again England’s naivety cost them dear as Leighton Baines allowed Robben the time and space to curl a shot off his left foot past Hart, although the keeper might have been equal to it had the ball not deflected of Gary Cahill.
“We showed a bit of naivety and a slight lack of belief,” Pearce told ITV after the game. “Once we got ourselves back into the game we’re disappointed we’ve been beaten but we’ve learnt a lot and that was the exercise.”
The stand-in England boss was evasive about his long-term future other than that he was available for the summer if he was needed. Whoever’s in charge then should take heart from this performance. The addition of a bit more experience, especially in the final third, to a team that played with such discipline and valued possession over route-one and, you never know, England could actually go quite far.
England (4-2-3-1): Hart; Richards, Smalling (Jones 63), Cahill, Baines; Parker, Barry (Milner 45); A Johnson (Downing 63) , Gerrard (Sturridge 33 (Walcott 87)), Young; Welbeck (Campbell 79)
Holland (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Boulahrouz (Vlaar 81), Heitinga, Mathijsen, Pieters (Schaars 45); N de Jong, Van Bommel; Kuyt, Sneijder, Robben; Van Persie (Huntelaar 45 (L De Jong 63).
Did you know… Referee Felix Brych took charge of Fabio Capello’s first match as England manager.
Check out the Euro 2012 odds and get some tips on the European Championships betting.