Dutch strike late twice to cruelly deny Mexico

Dos Santos’s opener cancelled out by Sneijder strike and Huntelaar penalty in Fortaleza

 

Netherlands 2 Mexico 1

We thought it was, plain and simple, too hot for football. Then Mexico scored and, in the burning heat of the second half, football broke out in the Netherlands team.

After 88 minutes a transformed second-half performance got the Dutch a deserved equaliser through Wesley Sneijder and then, three minutes later, a stunning winner by Klaas Huntelaar from the penalty spot after Arjen Robben had been tripped on the end line. The Bayern Munich player’s exaggerated dive did not nullify the fact that there had been contact, although Mexico’s manager Miguel Herrera was furious afterwards, accusing Portuguese referee Pedro Proencia of conspiracy.

You could not blame him for lashing out on a heartbreaking day, but for the Netherlands this was the grandest of escapes, which fitted brilliantly into the traditional narrative of Dutch football, with all its maddening inconsistency and unpredictability.

The result said a lot about the coaching of Louis van Gaal – it just wasn’t clear exactly what. Once Mexico scored, three minutes into the second half, the Dutch manager changed to a conventional 4-3-3 system and his side never looked back. In the final minutes, the decision passed on during a water break – the first water breaks of this World Cup – to send Dirk Kuyt up front alongside substitute Huntelaar, and to pepper the pair with long balls, finally broke Mexico.

If you measure a coach more by his response time than by his starting position, you cannot deny it was an afternoon when Van Gaal’s reputation was enhanced. But you also wondered what the Netherlands had been doing in the first half.

At the final whistle it was hard not to think of the statistics being digested beforehand: the Dutch had won six of their last seven matches in the last 16, and Mexico had been beaten at this stage in the last five World Cups. The climax of the game said a lot about belief and of pedigree, of cultural experience in the football sense. First Chile, then Mexico: cruelly beaten by nations with a little more knockout knowhow.

Who knew the Dutch had it in them? Nobody here after a first half in which we all agreed the conditions were taking a dreadful toll. It was reportedly 38 degrees pitchside at kick-off and most of the fans in the wide circle of seats where the sun burned through the roof of the Estádio Castelâo, gasping like flies in a bottle, had abandoned their seats for the cool confines of the shaded area at the back of the stand.

In the circumstances you weren’t sure whether to feel sad or happy for Nigel de Jong, forced off after the pitch after a handful of minutes through injury. For sure it was a blow for the Netherlands, who had already been slower to settle and did not need further disruption to a defence in which Augsburg’s 30-year-old captain Paul Verhaegh had been surprisingly picked ahead of Daryl Janmaat at right-back.

Van Gaal suggested he had been disappointed with Janmaat’s distribution, but he must also have considered the impact of Miguel Layun, Mexico’s most dangerous player, operating wide on the left. Whether that was the case it was a tough opening for Verhaegh, with Layun flying by him a few times, sending the ball dangerously into the box as well testing Jasper Cillessen with a shot.

Bruno Martins Indi had come on for De Jong and the Feyenoord player dropped into the backline, with Daley Blind pushing up to midfield. The balance never seemed quite right, and Mexico were by far the more dangerous side in the first half. Hector Herrera should have put them ahead after 17 minutes but he dragged his shot just left and wide after a ball over the top of Martins-Indi had put the Dutch on their heels. Then Ron Vlaar had to intervene smartly as Herrera tried to burst through a gap.

It was disappointing from the Dutch, who had plenty of possession, but didn’t do much with it. They had just fleeting sights of goal in the first half: a ball to Robin Van Persie over the top that he got a toe to but couldn’t control enough to get a shot on target; a few vaguely threatening runs by Robben that Mexico dealt with quite well. Then just before half-time Robben’s heels were clipped inside the area and the Netherlands were denied a penalty.

It wasn’t until they went behind and Van Gaal shook up his team that they started playing.

You couldn’t say the goal wasn’t coming, and although Dos Santos gets rich credit for the finish, you’d have to wonder how he was allowed to dig out the space he had. He latched on to a weak defensive header and drove the ball smartly back across Cillessen and into the bottom corner, but Blind’s challenge was poor and the whole episode spoke of the general listlessness in the Dutch performance.

Then they woke up. Van Gaal took off Verhaegh, switched Dirk Kuyt to the right, and introduced PSV’s Memphis Depay as an extra attacker on the left. It was the knock-on switch of Robben to the right that really paid dividends, and soon the Dutch were sweeping up the pitch instead of groping their way for a pass. Oribe Peralta drew a decent save from Cillessen from a similar position to Dos Santos’s goal, but the heroics were at the other end, in the hands of the goalkeeper who has specialised in such things, Guillermo Ochoa.

He somehow saved from Stefan de Vrij’s four-yard shot, turning the ball on to the post, then denied Robben, who was terrorising Mexican captain Rafael Marquez. Corner after corner came on that end, but no breakthough. It looked as though Mexico had done enough to hold out, but then a ball fired into the box from Robben allowed Huntelaar – on, surprisingly, for Van Persie – to head into Sneijder’s path, and the playmaker swept it gloriously into the corner.

Extra-time loomed and it looked like there would be only one winner. Who guessed they would do it so soon?

MEXICO: 13 Guillermo Ochoa; 22 Paul Aguilar, 2 Francisco Rodriguez, 4 Rafael Marquez, 15 Hector Moreno (5 Diego Reyes, half-time), 7 Miguel Layun; 6 Hector Herrera, 3 Carlos Salcido, 18 Andres Guardado; 10 Giovani dos Santos (20 Javier Acquino), 19 Oribe Peralta (14 Javier Hernandez, 75 mins). Yellow card: Aguilar, Marquez, Guardado

NETHERLANDS: 1 Jasper Cillessen; 12 Paul Verhaegh (21 Memphis Depay, 56 mins), 2 Ron Vlaar, 3 Stefan de Vrij, 5 Daley Blind; 15 Dirk Kuyt, 6 Nigel de Jong (4 Bruno Martins Indi, 9 mins), 20 Georginio Wijnaldum; 11 Arjen Robben, 10 Wesley Sneijder, 9 Robin van Persie (19 Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, 76 mins).

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