Dutch bring Euro to life by slaying Italy
Holland's 30-year wait for a victory over Italy ended in glorious fashion in Berne on Wednesday as Marco van Basten's side rampaged their way to a 3-0 defeat of the world champions.
A clearly offside goal from Ruud van Nistelrooy may have kickstarted the rout but there was no doubting that the Dutch, superior in every area, fully deserved a victory that was completed by Wesley Sneijder's close-range strike and a late breakaway goal by the outstanding Gio van Bronckhorst.
Uncharacteristically shaky in defence, the Italians were given a painful reminder of the importance of their World Cup captain Fabio Cannavaro, who was ruled out of the tournament after suffering an ankle injury in training last week.
Marco Materazzi took Cannavaro's place in the centre of defence but filling the former world player of the year's boots was to prove beyond the Inter Milan veteran, who was humiliatingly substituted ten minutes into the second half.
The first clear indication of the extent to which the Italians would miss Cannavaro came after quarter of an hour, when van Nistelrooy got in behind Materazzi only to be let down by a heavy first touch as he attempted to go round Buffon.
Materazzi made partial amends by heading Sneijder's free-kick from the left over his own bar. But there was no such let-off for the Italians when Rafael van der Vart swung in a similar delivery from the opposite flank minutes later.
Buffon could only the palm the ball away at his back post and when the ball was rolled back to Sneijder the midfielder unleashed a fierce low drive that van Nistelrooy turned into the net from four yards out.
As the striker was clearly offside, the ensuing protests may have been justified but their only result was a yellow card for Luca Toni.
Five minutes later the Italians found themselves in deeper trouble after a move that suggests Total Football is alive and well in the Netherlands.
Having cleared Andrea Pirlo's corner off his own line, van Bronckhurst immediately sprinted forward to take possession once more in the acres of space that had opened up down the left.
The Barcelona defender's cross was knocked down by Kuyt from beyond the back post and Sneijder, having stolen a yard on Materazzi, lashed the bouncing ball in between Buffon's left glove and the near post.
The world champions could offer little in response, their one real moment of menace before the break coming when Antonio di Natale's volley bounced through the legs of Khalid Boulahrouz with the result that Edwin van der Sar needed two attempts to smother the ball.
Van Nistelrooy should have extended the Dutch lead a minute before the break after Sneijder's superb pass once again put him in behind Materazzi.
From just inside the box, the striker pushed his shot towards the bottom corner only to see it ricocheted off Buffon's leg and up over the bar.
Within ten minutes of the restart, Italian coach Roberto Donadoni had decided radical surgergy was required for his malfunctioning back four.
Materazzi was hauled off, Fabio Grosso introduced at left-back with Gianluigi Zambrotta switching sides to allow rightback Christian Panucci to move into the centre.
Alessandro Del Piero was also thrown into the fray and the Juventus forward's prodding helped the Italians finally display some of their true quality.
But after Toni had lifted their best chance of the night over the bar, van der Sar produced superb stops to keep out Grosso's low drive and one of Pirlo's trademark freekicks in quick succession.
Inevitably gaps were being left at the back and the Dutch took advantage with another counter-attack move of breathtaking fluency that finished with van Bronckhorst playing the overlapping Kuyt into space inside the box.
Buffon blocked the Liverpool striker's shot but he was able to collect the loose ball and chip it into the area for van Bronckhorst to head home.
Poor starts are nothing new for Italy but, on this evidence, a World Cup and Euro double looks beyond Donadoni's men.