Netherlands know they were lucky to make it past Mexico
When Louis van Gaal looks back on this World Cup, he would be right in thinking his Dutch outfit, now 9/2 to win the tournament in Brazil with Coral, defeated Mexico more by luck than judgement.
Mainstream media are keen on alliterative descriptions such as the ‘Fortaleza furnace’, reflecting on this last 16 encounter between Clockwork Orange and the Aztecs, but there was only one side truly acclimatised to 35 degree heat and 75 per cent humidity.
Cooling breaks, where the players could take on much-needed fluid, were officially used for the first time in World Cup history here, yet it was not just rehydration on Van Gaal’s agenda. “I knew we were going to have this cooling break,” he said.
“First I changed from 4-3-3 and then we created a lot of chances. Then I moved to plan B. I did that in the cooling break – that is a clever way of benefiting from these breaks.”
Dutch tactics have been under the microscope in Brazil ever since they demolished holders Spain, who were subsequently dumped out before their defence could even begin. All this talk of 3-5-2 is totally wide of the mark.
What football matches are so-called pundits watching? Arjen Robben has never been up front alongside Robin van Persie at any stage in these finals. Van Gaal set the Netherlands up in a clear cut 4-1-4-1 formation. It didn’t take any great intellect to spot that.
Dirk Kuyt’s deployment is not that of a left wing back, but of a player in a genuine wide berth that no longer goes forward because, simply put, his best days are behind him. Nigel de Jong had his usual charge as midfield destroyer behind him, Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Georginio Wijnaldum.
This didn’t change when the former Manchester City man limped off barely 10 minutes in. Daley Blind moved up from left back to the holding role, with Bruno Martins Indi pressed into service faster than anticipated, after a concussion sustained in the second group game against Australia.
Mexico manager Miguel Herrera kept his own tactics straightforward. It was once again more 5-3-2 in the first half from the Aztecs. After the break, they changed it up, looking spring on the counter at 3-5-2. Giovani dos Santos opened the scoring with a sweet 25-yard half volley, and all of a sudden the Dutch were up against it.
Robben, meanwhile, had already reverted to type. “I have to apologise,” he said. “In the first half I took a dive.” For the record, he insisted the late penalty which sent the Netherlands through was not won through simulation.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a player used sparingly by Van Gaal, had a huge influence when he came on. It was his downward header that teed up Sneijder to smash home a late leveller. Responsibility then fell on Huntelaar’s shoulders to convert the stoppage time spot kick that sent Clockwork Orange through.
The Netherlands will play Central American surprise package Costa Rica in the quarter-finals as they edged Greece, who once again were never panicked into playing football, on penalties. Jorge Luis Pinto’s plucky charges have lost Oscar Duarte from their backline for their next match due to suspension.
What price Costa Rica can continue to confound us all and lift the World Cup? Coral have them down at just 33/1 to pull off a seemingly impossible dream. Conventional wisdom says the quarters are as far as Los Ticos can go. Pinto’s players are 11/2 outsiders to upset the Dutch in 90 minutes, and 3/1 to qualify for the final four.
Van Gaal would do well not to underestimate Costa Rica as fortunate underpinned their advancement to the last eight. Bryan Ruiz’s opener came off the bottom of his heel, probably taking it into the opposite corner than he intended.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos forced extra time somewhat infuriatingly just when it looked like the minnows would hold on, despite being a man light. It was nearly midnight UK time when Greece finally had the decency to bow out. There is no right or wrong way to play football, but there is no debating how ugly their style under Fernando Santos and Otto Rehhagel has been to watch.
This shoot-out loss brings the curtain down on Giorgos Karagounis’ international career, a player associated with the golden age of Greek football, but he was banned for that mother of all upsets when they won Euro 2004. He could hardly have chosen much later in his career to find the grace to step aside.
One thing is for sure, Robin van Persie, Robben and company will have to try and find a way past Costa Rica keeper Keylor Navas, who has been in inspired form at these finals, though are odds-on to do so. Like Mexican counterpart Guillermo Ochoa, the Levante stopper has certainly played himself into the shop window, and is 11/2 to keep the Netherlands out.