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(photo credit: AP)
After demolishing the world champions, the Netherlands could have called it "the Italian job." No, it was better.
"It is a perfect job," midfielder Wesley Sneijder said after his team beat Italy 3-0 Monday at the European Championship.
So perfect, it left World Cup goalkeeping hero Gianluigi Buffon with only one option.
"In the name of the entire team, I think I have to apologize to all the Italian fans," said Buffon, who comes a country that invented the "catenaccio" - a ruthless and ironclad defense.
Then again, the Dutch perfected the "Clockwork Orange" way of switching seamlessly from defense to attack during the 1970s, and Monday was a thrilling trip down memory lane.
Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wesley Sneijder scored in the first half, and standout defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst added the third on a counterattack in the 79th minute to give Italy its most lopsided loss in the history of the European Championship and its biggest defeat in a quarter century.
It leaves a team of veterans looking their age and facing elimination from the first round for the second straight time.
For the Dutch, it was redemption after leaving the World Cup two years ago stained in one of the ugliest and foulest games in history, a 1-0 loss to Portugal involving four red cards and 16 yellow.
"It was a historic feat. This was Italy, the world champion," Netherlands coach Marco van Basten said. "I cannot name one player who played poorly."
The Dutch carried several injuries into the match, but the Italians started with nine players over 30 and could not match the Netherlands for creativity and doggedness.
Edwin van der Sar, the 37-year-old Netherlands goalkeeper, produced a stunning save on Andrea Pirlo's free kick to prevent Italy from getting back in the game in the 78th.
Van Nistelrooy's breakthrough goal was claimed to be offside by Italy, but the striker deflected a 20-meter (yard) shot from Van Bronckhorst past Gianluigi Buffon with an Italy defender off the field next to the goal.
The second goal was a perfect counter. Van Bronckhorst first kicked a ball off his own line in a goalmouth scramble and immediately rushed up the left, where he took a long pass from Rafael van der Vaart. The Italians had trouble dragging their aging feet back and were woefully out of position when Van Bronckhost sent a defense-splitting pass to Dirk Kuyt on the right.
The Liverpool player, who only started because of a groin injury to Arjen Robben, headed it perfectly into the path of Sneijder and the midfielder volleyed it past Buffon. There may not be a better goal in the tournament.
"We have been able to play superb football," Sneijder said on his 24th birthday. "Now we have to continue in the same vein."
The defeat left Italy last in Group C after France and Romania drew 0-0. A defeat against the Romanians could send the Azzurri out by Friday.
"We have to accept this loss and look ahead to our next two games," Italy coach Roberto Donadoni said. "That's the great thing about this (tournament). We face Romania right away and we need a win to restore our pride. We have to go out onto the field believing we can win."
The Italians may have had billboards saying "Spremuta d'Orange" _ freshly squeezed orange juice _ but it was a Dutch squeezing which left the Azzurri blue in the face.
It was Italy's worst defeat since Oct. 15, 1983, when the team lost to Sweden 3-0 in Naples in a European Championship qualifier. Italy's biggest loss at the final tournament came in the 1988 semifinals when the Soviet Union beat it 2-0.
With three goals in one game, Italy already conceded one more goal than in the whole World Cup two years ago.
"It was one of the ugliest games in the last 12 years," Buffon said. "In the name of the entire team, I think I have to apologize to all the Italian fans."
It was not supposed to be like that, especially since the Dutch missed their mercurial wingers Robben and Robin van Persie. On top of that, its defense was supposed to be brittle, especially against tall men.
Van Basten, however, surprised everyone by playing Khalid Boulahrouz, who only came into the squad last week to replace the injured Ryan Babel.
It was by far the biggest victory for Van Basten in his four-year spell for the Netherlands and it will increase the pressure on Donadoni, who has never been able to fully assume the mantle of his World Cup-winning predecessor Marcello Lippi.
"We allowed two goals due to errors, but Holland did not completely outplay us," Donadoni said. "We started well, then we struggled a bit with our game plan. But from the desire point of view, the guys reacted well. Tonight just wasn't a night when the shots went in for us."
Italy standout defender Fabio Cannavaro was on crutches watching from the dugout after an ankle injury put him out of the competition ahead of its start. Marco Materazzi, a hero of the 2006 World Cup, was supposed to take over his place seamlessly.
It didn't work.
Materazzi could not keep pace with a reinvigorated Van Nistelrooy. Embarrassingly, he had to be substituted in the 53rd by Fabio Grosso and Donadoni had to rework his whole defense instead of beefing up the attack.
"We had three or four chances we didn't take advantage of," Donadoni said.
The victory ended a 30-year drought for the Dutch against Italy, who famously beat them in the semifinals of the 2000 European Championship, which the Netherlands hosted.
At the Wankdorf stadium, most of the stands looked an intense orange, and when most started singing "Hup, Holland, Hup," the Italians might have known it was all over.
Donadoni brought in Alessandro Del Piero in the 64th minute, but that too seemed to be for old time's sake. He had a good shot on goal, but he faced the older man, this one playing his best, Van der Sar.
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