With the nation firmly in the throes of football fever, the Amsterdam ArenA was awash with dazzling orange for Holland's first official friendly of their pre-Euro 2012 campaign. The Dutch stars, donning their new orange strip, were greeted with a standing ovation.
The starting line-up included quite a few surprises. In goal, Tim Krul appeared instead of first-choice Maarten Stekelenburg. In left-back position, young Jetro Willems (just 18) got his first official cap, in the wake of a sterling performance against Bayern Munich.
And in front, Holland boss Bert van Marwijk left out Dirk Kuyt and opted to pair Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar together, both of whom have enjoyed prolific seasons in England and Germany respectively, instead of continuing his tested policy of deploying one central striker.
“We’re taking this match very seriously,” Van Marwijk had said during the week. But so did Bulgaria, who kept the playing area very tight from the first minute. “We’re hoping to repeat our 2-1 victory of 1988
, when we upset Holland at home,” coach Lyuboslav Penev had told RNW on the eve of the match.
His team gladly left possession to Holland and looked out for a rapier counter. They got the first in the 13th minute, which left Joris Mathijsen sitting on the pitch with a pulled hamstring, prompting Van Marwijk to make his first substitution. In came Wilfred Bouma, who some had expected to be omitted from the final squad, announced earlier in the day
. But the 33-year-old sweeper had little to do, as Bulgaria left the initiative to Holland.
After 30 minutes of watching Holland fail to open up the green-white defence, the home crowd grew quiet and, for the first time, the 200-odd Bulgarian fans could be heard chanting in the stands.
The match turned slightly rough, and in the 35th minute Nikolay Bodurov was yellow-carded for a foul on Sneijder. Seven minutes later, John Heitinga was booked for a similar foul against Georgi Milanov. The ensuing free kick curled dangerously over the Dutch goalkeeper, hitting the crossbar. It was the wake-up call the men in orange needed. One minute before half-time, Sneijder sent a long cross for Van Persie to tap the ball past goalkeeper Stoyan Kolev.
Three minutes into the second half, Bulgaria leveled proceedings when Ivelin Popov converted a penalty given for a Van der Vaart handball. With Dirk Kuyt instead of Van der Vaart and Stijn Schaars replacing Willems, Holland attempted to up the pressure on the guests, but to no avail. Bulgaria even got three shots on goal, but these went wide.
There was another standing ovation on 76 minutes, when embattled striker Arjen Robben came on. Off went Huntelaar, leaving Van Persie on his own up front. But even Robben’s explosive dribbles couldn’t inspire the Dutch game.
And then, in the third minute of injury time, Bulgaria manager Penev got what he had banked for when Ilyan Mizanski headed in a perfect cross from the right following a defensive blunder from the otherwise outstanding John Heitinga. After the match, Penev congratulated his team on an excellent performance. And to comfort his Dutch guests, he stressed that in 1988, after their defeat against Bulgaria, Holland went on to win the European Championship.
The orange-clad crowd didn't seem convinced. They left the Amsterdam ArenA in silence, with some of them looking up briefly to watch the 200-odd jubilant Bulgarian fans.
Holland starting line-up:
1-Tim Krul (Newcastle United), 2-Gregory van der Wiel, 3-John Heitinga (Everton), 4-Joris Mathijsen (Malaga), 5-Jetro Willems (PSV Eindhoven), 6-Mark van Bommel (AC Milan), 7-Robin van Persie (Arsenal), 8-Nigel de Jong (Manchester City), 9-Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Schalke), 10-Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), 11-Rafael van der Vaart (Tottenham Hotspur)
Bulgaria starting line-up:
12-Stoyan Kolev (Tchernomorets), 15-Ivan Ivanov (Partizan Belgrade), 5-Nikolay Bodurov (Litex Lovech), 6-Yordan Minev (Ludogorets), 2-Stanislav Manolev (PSV Eindhoven), 14-Veselin Minev (Antalyaspor), 17-Georgi Milanov (Litex Lovech), 21-Svetoslav Dyakov (Ludogorets), Vla18-dimir Gadzhev (Levski Sofia), 9-Ivelin Popov (Gaziantespor), 10-Valeri Bojinov (Lecce)