Saturday, June 9
By Nick Ames in Kharkiv
Robin van Persie and his ‘chocolate leg’ look in formidable shape ahead of this evening’s Group B opener between Holland and Denmark.
Arsenal’s captain famously likened his weaker foot to an item of confectionery a few years back, but he could be seen evoking the spirit of Marco van Basten during yesterday evening’s training session with a couple of thudding volleys on his right-hand side.
The Netherlands, third favourites for the tournament, looked sharp and relaxed at the impressive Metalist Stadium. Robin limbered up between Dirk Kuyt and close friend Ibrahim Afellay, joining his team-mates in a number of quick-passing drills before pairing with Arjen Robben as the full backs whipped in crosses for the Dutch attackers.
One airborne backheel into the top corner from Wesley Sneijder provoked applause from players and media alike, while accurate balls from 18-year-old left-back Jetro Willems – favourite to start in that position today - drew appreciation from his team-mates and coaching staff.
Manager Bert van Marwijk was giving little away regarding his line-up for tonight – fielding Robin in an unlikely attacking trio with Kuyt and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for the 20-minute match that wrapped up proceedings.
His press conference prior to the session hadn’t yielded much either. Just nine minutes long, it came a day after suggestions that some of his players had been subjected to racist chanting from onlookers during an open training event in Poland. Neither he nor captain Marc van Bommel were in the mood to be particularly expansive in front of a soundbite-hungry media corps – as their press officer had suggested in advance.
Denmark boss Morten Olsen had been more willing to chat an hour or two previously – he’d even prepared an address before any questions were fielded, telling journalists that “If we get through this group we have already won”.
A practiced talker, he gave wittily sarcastic shrift to a few negatively-slanted enquiries from the Danish press and played a straight bat when I asked him about the benefits of a fit and firing Nicklas Bendtner – who struggled with injury during the 2010 World Cup.
“At the World Cup he was injured and we had problems in that position,” Olsen replied. “Now he’s in very good shape and had a very good training camp. Physically he is 100 per cent so hopefully he will reach his top level in tomorrow’s game.”
Bendtner has a fine record for Denmark, with 48 caps bringing 18 goals. He and the brilliant Ajax schemer Christian Eriksen - whose fitness is in some doubt – are the talismen on whom their country’s hopes rest over the coming weeks.
Both of today’s Arsenal representatives will do well to emulate Andrey Arshavin’s influential showing for Russia against Tomas Rosicky’s Czech Republic last night, which I watched in Kharkiv’s Fan Park. The city’s main square transformed into a sea of Russian support for the evening - and the atmosphere will surely grow if Arshavin, Alan Dzagoev and company keep turning on the style.
Now I’m off into the city centre to gauge the mood among the mass of Dutch fans that grew visibly during a day spent in and around the stadium. I think they’ll be happy tonight. The Netherlands began the World Cup with a hard-fought 2-0 win over today’s opposition and it’s easy to imagine a similar situation this time around.
And if Robin bags one with his right foot, you know where you got the tip-off.
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