DOWN the years, England’s February friendly before a major finals has become something of a launchpad for young hopefuls wanting to state their case for inclusion come the summer.
The most famous example is Michael Owen, who after making his debut against Chile in 1998 went on to become the sensation of that year’s World Cup courtesy of ‘that’ goal against Argentina just four months later.
Others to have made notable debuts in the shortest month of the year who have gone on to make the final squad for a European Championships are Alan Shearer in 1992 and Robbie Fowler four years later.
Last night, however, few wearing white advanced their cause for a place at Euro 2012 as Holland ran out much more convincing winners than the score suggests.
Stuart Pearce’s first – and, who knows, maybe last – game in temporary charge posed more questions than it provided answers.
The most pertinent of these is, even allowing for the late strikes by Gary Cahill and Ashley Young that set up such a grandstand finish destined to be capped by Arjen Robben’s stoppage-time winner, just where are the goals going to come from this summer?
With Darren Bent already ruled out through injury and Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two group games, the Three Lions’ attacking options are limited.
Certainly, Danny Wellbeck, on his first international start, does not seem ready. Nor does Daniel Sturridge, who wasted a wonderful opportunity to bring England back into the game when 2-0 down after being picked out by Leighton Baines.
The backline, too, had a difficult night with all three of Holland’s goals being preventable.
Holland’s first two strikes came within a minute of each other, the first on 57 minutes a result of Robben being granted the freedom of Wembley to run 50 yards before drilling a low shot beyond Joe Hart from the edge of the area.
Less than 60 seconds later, the game seemed up for Pearce’s side as an inviting cross from Dirk Kuyt allowed Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to power an unstoppable header past Hart a split second before clashing heads with Chris Smalling.
Both men had to leave the field after lengthy treatment, meaning they missed a thrilling finale that saw Cahill pull a goal back six minutes from time courtesy of neat footwork.
Suddenly possessing an attacking drive that had until then been missing, England poured forward in search of an equaliser.
It duly arrived a few seconds into stoppage time when Young’s clever dart into the box was followed by a deft finish as the Manchester United wideman chipped Maarten Stekelenburg.
As the majority of the 76,283 crowd rose to acclaim England’s fightback, however, there was one final twist as Robben again capitalised on being given too much space to curl an exquisite shot beyond Hart in the second minute of added-on time to condemn Pearce to a losing start.
There is, of course, no disgrace in losing to Holland, World Cup finalists just two years ago.
The Dutch are also third favourites to win Euro 2012 behind Spain and Germany, while in Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder they have a trio of players worthy of following in the tradition of past greats such as Cruyff, Gullit and van Basten.
Even so, the manner of last night’s defeat surely bodes badly for England’s Euro 2012 hopes with the suspicion being that, had they needed to do so, the Dutch were capable of stepping up a gear.
This much was apparent during a first half heavy on neat and tidy football but short of a sustained attacking threat from either side.
From the start, both England and the Dutch were clearly intent on stroking the ball around before waiting for an opening to develop.
In those opening exchanges, nearly all of these fell to Holland with it taking two desperate blocks from new captain Scott Parker to prevent Hart being left exposed.
The England goalkeeper was finally called into action on 14 minutes to keep out Robben after the former Chelsea man had skipped past Micah Richards.
A superb block by Cahill then denied Joris Mathijsen, before Hart was fortunate that his flap at an initially innocuous-looking cross from Erik Pieters did not prove more costly as the ball sailed over his head and behind for a goalkick.
Later in the first half, England did manage to exert some of their own pressure as Adam Johnson had a shot deflected behind by John Heitinga.
The hope for the home fans as the half-time whistle blew was that the second half would see England step up a gear but, instead, it was Holland who showed their class to claim a first win at Wembley since 1977.
England: Hart; Richards, Smalling (Jones 64), Cahill, Baines; Parker, Barry (Milner 46); Johnson (Downing 62), Gerrard (Sturridge 33, Walcott 88), Young; Wellbeck (Campbell 79). Unused substitutes: Cole, Green, Lescott, Carson.
Holland: Stekelenburg; Boulahrouz (Vlaar 82), Heitinga, Mathijsen, Pieters (Schaars 46); Van Bommel, N De Jong; Kuyt, Sneijder (Emanuelson 76), Robben; Van Persie (Huntelaar 46, L De Jong 62). Unused substitutes: used): Krul, Vlaar, Strootman, Wijnaldum, Bruma, John, Narsingh.
Referee: F Brych (Germany).