Dutch dismantle Spanish rearguard as defending champions torn asunder

Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben both score two in rout

Robin van Persie scores the Netherlands’ opening goal during the World Cup Group B match against Spain  at the Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador. Photograph: Michael Dalder/Reuters

Robin van Persie scores the Netherlands’ opening goal during the World Cup Group B match against Spain at the Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador. Photograph: Michael Dalder/Reuters


Netherlands 5 Spain 1: Redemption for Arjen Robben and the Netherlands arrived in the form of an emphatic reversal of fortunes from the 2010 final and a much better game of football. This match deserves to be remembered as a World Cup classic, Robin van Persie’s goal in particular just might be, and it certainly provided more entertainment than the kickfest in Johannesburg.

There were times when Spain looked superior, and times when the Dutch looked desperate enough to revert to old habits, but in coming back from a goal down to win the match quite handsomely Louis van Gaal’s side showed character and application. As the new Manchester United manager had said they would.

Robben and the Netherlands looked pleased enough just to be winning 2-1 when the former struck to put them in the lead for the first time, but by the end of the game, with Iker Casillas making a second mistake in misjudging a back pass and presenting Van Persie with a second goal for a scoreline of 4-1, the Dutch looked conspicuously like dangerous tournament underdogs and all talk of Spain being among the favourites looked plain silly.

Yes, Spain opened with a defeat in South Africa four years ago and went on to win the competition, but this was a rout. And Diego Costa had the unhappiest of competition debuts, mitigated only by the misery Casillas must have been feeling.

With the match won at 4-1, Robben outsprinted the Dutch defence from the halfway line, sent Casillas crawling the wrong way twice, and joined Van Persie on two goals for the night. He may now regret saying a qualifying game could never be compared to a World Cup final, because this was an occasion for everyone in orange to savour.

Robben spoke before the game of the still-vivid memory of Casillas denying him the chance to give the Dutch a potentially winning lead in the World Cup final of four years ago, describing it as a snapshot he will never forget but one which now belongs to the past tense.

He gave Wesley Sneijder a chance to help make amends after just nine minutes, threading a perfect pass through the square Spain defence, and memories must have come flooding back as the Galatasaray midfielder lined up a shot with all the time in the world but still hit it too close to the goalkeeper. Casillas stood his ground well and made a decent save, though the goalkeeper hardly moved except to fling out an arm and Sneijder will know he should have done better.

The game looked as though it might bring back plenty more memories of 2010 when Ron Vlaar clattered Costa after just 13 seconds, though the Dutch settled down quite quickly and Vlaar had every reason to be proud of his next challenge on Costa, a block to prevent the Atlético Madrid striker getting in a shot after David Silva and Andrés Iniesta had combined to give him a decent opportunity. In truth the opportunity was so inviting Costa should probably have made something of it before Vlaar came across, but his first touch was indecisive and the Aston Villa defender was always in charge once his opponent had been forced on to his left foot.

The first goal arrived just before the half-hour and with it the almost obligatory controversy. Xavi played a magnificent pass to Costa, whose turn in the area was far too quick for Stefan de Vrij, and when the defender’s trailing leg brought the striker down the Italian referee pointed straight to the spot. It seemed a reasonable decision at first sight, yet though replays established De Vrij had made contact, it was fairly minimal and there was a suggestion that Costa had actually played for the decision by hooking his foot behind his opponent’s. Such is a referee’s life these days.

The goalline technology was able to establish that the ball crossed the line when Xabi Alonso beat Jasper Cillessen from the spot, even though the goalkeeper went the right way, but that was the redundant part of the argument. The technology that can help referees make correct decisions in every aspect of open play is probably as far away as ever.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter the fact is that Spain went ahead and were worth their lead. Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso were finding each other quite easily and always looking likely to find gaps in the Dutch back line. Jonathan de Guzmán was booked for a foul on Iniesta and when De Vrij joined him for a quite cynical block after being turned by Silva it appeared Dutch frustration might once again get the better of them. There is, as Van Gaal was saying beforehand, a place for physical aggression in football and it is up to the referee to draw the line, but Nicola Rizzoli was given little option as the Dutch greeted Spanish sophistication with roughhouse spoiling.

Spain at their sophisticated best should really have doubled their lead before the interval. Iniesta played a peach of a reverse pass to release Silva clear on goal, but the Manchester City player went for a stylish finish with an attempted chip, only to see Cillessen get a glove to the ball and divert it for a corner.

Almost instantly Spain had cause to regret that miss when the Dutch equalised with a goal from nothing on right on the stroke of the break. From a Spanish point of view it came from nothing anyway, though Daley Blind must be congratulated on a stunning diagonal ball from halfway on the left touchline.

Robin van Persie’s run picked it up almost magnetically and though Blind probably had a volley in mind when he played the pass, the ball was not in quite the right place and the Manchester United striker repositioned himself expertly to beat Casillas with a diving header instead. It could almost be described as a headed volley, the last thing Spain were expecting, and it put the Netherlands right back in the game.

The second half began in one of the sudden downpours typical of the region, it is the rainy season after all, and though the sky cleared in a matter of minutes both benches took an unexpected soaking.

Iniesta tried his luck with a daisy cutter on the wet turf but found Cillessen equal to it, before the Dutch gave Spain a taste of their own medicine by keeping hold of the ball through a couple of dozen passes – allowing for a throw-in that Spain won then uncharacteristically gave straight back to their opponents – before Blind once again popped up with a killer final ball, this time to find Robben in the centre. The Bayern Munich forward brought down the ball effortlessly with one foot, turned past Gerard Piqué with the other before joyously finding the net as Sergio Ramos moved in with a shot straight down the middle that Casillas could not reach.

Robben’s reaction suggested he enjoyed his shot at redemption, and he was involved again as the Dutch came looking for a third, helping to find Van Persie on the right for a shot that crashed against the bar.

Much to the crowd’s delight – Brazil don’t think much of him either – Costa made way for Fernando Torres after that, the Chelsea player arriving on the pitch just in time to see the Dutch increase their lead when De Vrij squeezed in a far-post header after Casillas had missed Sneijder’s free-kick cross. If that looked ominous for Spain, few in the stadium realised how bad things were going to get.

NETHERLANDS: 1 Jasper Cillessen; 7 Daryl Janmaat, 3 Stefan de Vrij (yc) (13 Joel Veltman, 77 mins), 2 Ron Vlaar, 4 Bruno Martins Indi, 5 Daley Blind; 8 Jonathan de Guzman (yc) (20 Georginio Wijnaldum, 62 mins), 6 Nigel de Jong; 10 Wesley Sneijder; 9 Robin van Persie (yc) (17 Jeremain Lens, 79 mins), 11 Arjen Robben.

SPAIN: 1 Iker Casillas (yc); 22 Cesar Azpilicueta, 3 Gerard Pique, 15 Sergio Ramos, 18 Jordi Alba; 16 Sergio Busquets, 14 Xabi Alonso (11 Pedro, 62 mins); 8 Xavi, 6 Andres Iniesta; 21 David Silva (10 Cesc Fabregas, 78 mins); 19 Diego Costa (9 Fernando Torres, 62 mins).

(Guardian Service)

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