Not for the first time this season, Wesley Sneijder was the talk of Amsterdam last night. The AFC Ajax playmaker underlined his status as one of Europe's brightest talents with a virtuoso display in the Netherlands' 4-1 defeat of Russia.
With 13 goals in 20 league games this season - including a hat-trick in Sunday's 4-1 thrashing of Feyenoord - Sneijder might have been surprised to begin the Russia friendly on the bench, not least because he had started the Group G leaders' last three UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifiers. After a goalless first half that lacked inspiration, Oranje coach Marco van Basten had seen enough and sent Sneijder into the fray along with towering Ajax team-mate Ryan Babel.
"It really made a difference when Sneijder entered the pitch and Babel came on down the left wing," Van Basten said. "Sneijder brought more creativity, and that really helped us. When you have a player who can do these kinds of things for a team, then it becomes a lot easier. Goals make the difference, and that makes others play better as well. The first half was not much of a spectacle."
Sneijder's appearance led to the first real action for Igor Akinfeev, with the highly-rated Russia goalkeeper having to keep out two long-range efforts from the 22-year-old. Babel eventually broke the deadlock before Sneijder put the hosts in control with a fierce strike. Russia pulled one back through Vladimir Bystrov but the Netherlands were dominant and added two more goals through Joris Mathijsen and Rafael van der Vaart.
For all the attacking intent, with Sneijder joining Van der Vaart and Clarence Seedorf on the pitch, Van Basten admitted he would not always be so adventurous: "With those three you have a lot of football in your team, but when the ball is lost you have to ask the boys to do things they are not good at." Van Basten also had praise for Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, who led the line ahead of Klaas Jan Huntelaar, yet it was Sneijder who was on most people's minds.
Captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst said: "By bringing on Babel and Sneijder we got more speed and more of the play. Wesley is always likely to create an opening and shoot from distance. He is in form and proved that again." As for Sneijder himself, he said he was "disappointed" but "not unhappy" to start on the bench. "It was not just me who won the game," he stressed. "The tempo of the whole team increased which gave us more chances and the ability to score. It was a clear victory."
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