Wednesday, June 13
By Nick Ames in Kharkiv
It’s safe to say that Kharkiv hasn’t seen anything quite like it.
If the influx of Dutch fans was enough to contend with at the end of last week, things have ratcheted up a notch now the Germans are also in town - and out in considerable force.
At 9.45pm local time, the two sets of fans will converge upon the Metalist Stadium – where you’d be very surprised to see the same number of empty seats evident at the Netherlands v Denmark game – to savour the stand-out tie of the group stage.
It’s become a decisive day for Robin van Persie’s Dutch. If Denmark overcome Portugal in the day’s opening game, then defeat for the Oranje will send them spinning out of Euro 2012 – with a draw leaving their hopes hanging by a thread. Realistically, a win is what they need to assume any kind of control over their own destiny.
The stakes could barely be higher for a clash between old adversaries, and Bert van Marwijk’s side will need to be more clinical than against the Danes, when they spurned a host of chances after periods of excellent build-up play.
Despite missing several opportunities of his own in that game, Van Persie should keep his place for the Dutch tonight – his understanding with Arjen Robben, Ibrahim Afellay and Saturday’s outstanding performer, Wesley Sneijder, is too important to be jettisoned.
He’s unlikely to meet Arsenal team-mate Per Mertesacker en route to goal, though – the German centre-back watched his side’s opening 1-0 win over Portugal from the bench, and coach Joachim Low is unlikely to make a defensive change at this stage.
Arsenal eyes will fall upon Lukas Podolski, too. The new arrival had a quiet match against the Portuguese in Lviv, but may find more space to attack a Dutch defence that looked alarmingly brittle during those rare Danish incursions.
It’s the first match of the tournament for which a line between success and failure lies firmly in the sand and it could be the most intense occasion yet in a competition that has bubbled along nicely so far.
For this reporter, yesterday was the first punctuation mark in what has been a hectic six days. An afternoon return by train from Donetsk to Kharkiv meant a day without pre-match press conferences or other UEFA events, and a chance to ease off.
Of the train’s passengers, I seemed pretty much alone in doing so – its restaurant car was a heady, raucous carnival of German fans mixing with new Russian friends who were heading onwards to Moscow. Accounts suggested that the local chilli vodka made varying kinds of impact among those who will be rooting for Podolski and company tonight.
Consequently, I missed the Czech Republic’s victory over Greece but arrived in time to see Poland deservedly hold the Russians. Those results have teed up what should be another febrile occasion – a winner-takes-all clash between the Poles and the Czechs on Saturday. If Wojciech Szczesny is recalled after suspension and Tomas Rosicky shrugs off the Achilles injury that forced his withdrawal, we could see another climactic all-Arsenal tussle.
The sweltering early summer in Ukraine shows little sign of abating, with temperatures likely to reach 33 degrees today. It’s likely that the Metalist Stadium will generate heat of its own in a few hours’ time - it’s set up for a fabulous evening and a shoot-out between two Arsenal strikers.
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