Arjen Robben inspires as Dutch top Group B
Leroy Fer and Memphis Depay come off bench to score against Chile
Caught between the knowledge that both teams were already qualified and the risk that Brazil could lie in wait for the loser the Netherlands and Chile played out an earnest rather than entertaining game in São Paulo on Monday afternoon.
With two late goals after what was an impressive defensive display by their young backline that will fuel confidence for the games to come, the Dutch clinched first spot in Group B and will now avoid Brazil should the hosts beat Cameroon tonight in Brasília as expected.
In the build-up the Dutch had sniped that Fifa’s decision to have their own Group B wrap up before Group A would allow Brazil to choose their second-round opponents.
Such thinking was always slightly illogical. After the draw against Mexico the Brazilian public is demanding nothing less than a win against Cameroon and both sides here played like they believed they’d get it with the loser likely facing a daunting second-round game against the hosts in Belo Horizonte on Saturday.
The Dutch had the advantage of knowing a draw would be enough to see them top the group and they set up first and foremost to get one, playing with a flat back four in which the impressive Daley Blind showed little of the attacking verve on display against Spain and with Dirk Kuyt making a first start playing as a disciplined guard in front of him in a cautious Orange first half.
The early initiative was largely with Chile. Either they had history on their mind – Brazil has eliminated them the three times they have made the World Cup knock-out stages – or Jorge Sampaoli’s team only knows how to play an aggressive high-tempo game. With playmaker Arturo Vidal rested in order to protect the knee that was operated on as recently as May, Alexis Sánchez took the creative role on himself and he was at the heart of his team’s best moves.
Willing to soaking up Chilean pressure the Dutch looked content to try and hit long balls towards Jeremain Lens, in for the suspended Robin van Persie. Most of their chances came from a series of free kicks Chile were willing to concede around their area when the Dutch mounted raids.
Arjen Robben took one he won himself and from it Stefan De Vrij put his side’s best chance of the half just wide. For all Chile’s effort Robben was the half’s most eye-catching performer. He has the look of a player for whom his opening game goals against Spain is not redemption enough for that missed chance in the final four years ago.
His fans had to wait but the Flying Dutchman was able to unleash his lethal pace at the Chilean backline several times as the half progressed. The most dangerous of his raids into the Chilean box was in the 40th minute when he set off from his own half running at a desperately backpedalling defence. But his shot back across goal was wide.
The second half was more open, if slightly ragged, as the Dutch shed some of their first-half caution and were less willing to invite their opponents onto them. This provided the Chileans with marginally more space to exploit but without their playmaker Vidal they kept coming up short, with Sánchez unsurprisingly proving unable to be provider and executioner all at once. As the match progressed they were increasingly reduced to appealing for penalties.
With 20 minutes remaining, in a bid to inject more inventiveness, Sampaoli took off defender Francisco Silva and switched to a back four with mercurial playmaker Jorge Valdivia coming on to the delight of the Chilean fans who had been demanding his introduction for some time.
In doing so Valdivia made a piece of history, becoming the first player from Palmeiras to play in this new stadium of his club’s arch-rivals Corinthians, whose own fans among the crowd directed a chorus of homophobic abuse at him.
But it was another substitution that made the crucial breakthrough. With 15 minutes to go Wesley Sneijder was taken off and Van Gaal will be hoping there is more to come from what has been in the three games so far the most subdued element of his illustrious attacking trident.
Almost immediately from a corner routine the man who replaced him, Norwich City’s Leroy Fer, emphatically headed in as the Dutch finally made one of their many set pieces count.
Chile responded with an attempt at a late siege of the Dutch goal. It proved their final undoing. With most of their players committed De Jong knocked a ball up the left for Robben, breaking away with that frightening pace of his. He charged towards goal and looked up and saw Memphis Depay arriving, the substitute turning in his cross.
But by then many of the locals had already left a contest that though spikey at times always lacked the drama of the previous game here when England and Uruguay were both fighting for their very lives in the tournament. The suspicion was always present that real drama involving these two teams is still to come, whether against Brazil or someone else.
NETHERLANDS: 1 Jasper Cillessen; 7 Daryl Janmaat, 3 Stefan de Vrij, 2 Ron Vlaar, 5 Daley Blind; 20 Georginio Wijnaldum, 6 Nigel de Jong, Dirk Kuyt (14 Terence Kongolo, 89 mins); 11 Arjen Robben, 10 Wesley Sneijder (18 Leroy Fer, 75 mins), 17 Jeremain Lens (21 Memphis Depay, 69 mins). Yellow card: Blind.
CHILE: 1 Claudio Bravo; 4 Mauricio Isla, 5 Francisco Silva (10 Jorge Valdivia, 70 mins), 17 Gary Medel, 18 Gonzalo Jara, 2 Eugenio Mena; 20 Charles Aranguiz, 21 Marcelo Diaz; 7 Alexis Sanchez, 16 Felipe Gutierrez (15 Jean Beausejour, half-time), 11 Eduardo Vargas (9 Mauricio Pinilla, 81 mins). Yellow card: Silva.