Holland came into this game having found themselves, again, as one of the neutral’s favourites. They were the tournament’s top scorers in the group stage, thanks in no small part, of course, to Robin van Persie (with 21 goals in his last 26 internationals) and Arjen Robben (eight in his last 10). Behind them, though, they had had much to be grateful for in the rampaging work of Daley Blind (with three World Cup assists to his name before today, second only to Colombia’s Juan Cuadrado, alongside 16 tackles, second only to Javier Mascherano) and Daryl Janmaat. Which made it a bit of a surprise that, for this match, Janmaat found himself confined to the bench; and when Nigel de Jong went off injured within the opening 10 minutes, Blind found himself in holding midfield. To a degree, the lethargy which the Dutch displayed before going behind can be explained away by the heat, which was sufficient to bring about the World Cup’s first official ‘cooling breaks’. On the other hand, a team which beats the world champions 5-1 in its first game in the group stages should be looking to stamp its mark on the tournament. Partly by choice in rotating his squad against Chile, partly by necessity – particularly, today, the weather and the injury to De Jong – Holland have lost momentum in this tournament. They may have scraped through today, but they will have to find something more if they are going to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.
Before this game, the likely pattern seemed clear. In short, it was going to be attack versus defence. While spectacular diving headers and perhaps-not-diving-quite-as-much-as-they-have-been-known-to-do wingers blew Group B away for the Dutch, Mexico boasted the joint-best defence in the group stage, standing alongside Costa Rica and Belgium with only one goal conceded. Guillermo Ochoa and Rafael Marquez have been getting the headlines (the Och-topus for his performance against Brazil in particular, a 90 minute shift which has surely on its own earned him a lucrative move away from Ajaccio, and Marquez, well, for being Marquez). They had been ably flanked, though, by Francisco Rodríguez (with 22 clearances and nine interceptions in his team’s three games before today) and Héctor Moreno. And the Fifa-distributed team-sheet for this match did not advertise a change of approach. Among such useful press box information as club side, minutes played and, er, height, each player was assigned an official position. No less than seven of the Mexicans were described as defenders, with only Oribe Peralta and Giovani dos Santos up front and Hector Herrera in midfield escaping the nomenclative clutches. Until they went ahead, though, they were so much more, a bundle of clever touches and positive runs, led by the player of the match in Giovani dos Santos. Unfortunately, that was sacrificed as they looked to protect their lead. Mexico have been knocked out of the World Cup finals at the second round stage on every occasion since 1994. Perhaps that run could have been brought to an end today – if only they could have hung on a little bit longer to their ambition.
Most observers of this World Cup have already written off Costa Rica at least once, while people have been writing off Greece since Euro 2004 (and mostly then too). We should probably learn some lessons from that. But for now, the fact remains that, of the fourteen teams which remained in the World Cup after this game, Costa Rica and Greece are two of the weakest. The winner of that contest will be in their first World Cup quarter-final, with all of the heightened focus and pressure that entails. Greece’s victory in 2004 showed the power of momentum in tournament football, and with no team as yet standing out as the one to beat, this is a fine opportunity for the Dutch – notwithstanding today’s wobble – to ride the crest of a wave all the way to glory at the Maracanã on 13 July.
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