Netherlands 2-1 Mexico: Oranje leave it late in tense affair

It was always going to be an interesting and exciting affair, but not many Netherlands and Mexico fans would have expected to come out the other side of their second round clash feeling like their life had been shortened by a few years.

Fighting back from 1-0 down, Louis van Gaal’s team secured their place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup with a 2-1 win over the North American side.

While they had dealt with Chile, Spain and Australia, their meeting with Miguel Herrera’s team seemed much more of a challenge.

The team who had held Brazil to a goalless draw and outclassed Cameroon and Croatia looked remarkably strong heading into the game and showed that they were even more suited to battling the surprisingly efficient Oranje.

While the first-half finished goalless, Dutch fans were left extremely nervous as the Mexicans dominated, stretched and put them under immense pressure. The anxiety reached dangerous heights for Netherlands supporters early in the second half when Giovani dos Santos smashed home from outside the box. The Oranje pushed on from then on, though, and chance after chance, as the time appeared to be running out Wesley Sneijder belted one in as a corner was nodded down to him to tie it all up. Just minutes later, the exciting encounter reached its climax when Arjen Robben was brought down in the box and late substitute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar belted home the resultant spot kick in injury time.

Huntelaar’s finish capped off a remarkable and thoroughly exciting affair.

It didn’t start well at all for Van Gaal’s charges, though. In fact, it seemed they had the worst possible start when one of the team’s key players, Nigel de Jong, was taken off after just nine minutes, being replaced by the unfit Bruno Martins Indi.

The move affected the Oranje’s defence and midfield, with Martins Indi slotting into the backline, taking the place of Daley Blind, who moved into his more comfortable position of the centre of midfield. However, Martins Indi was not at his best, as Van Gaal admitted he expected him to play about 20 minutes as opposed to 80, while Blind couldn’t properly fill De Jong’s role.

Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij and Ron Vlaar are three defenders who are used to each other’s style and know they can work together. However, upon Martins Indi’s introduction, there seemed a real lack of shape and understanding among the three of them, as they began to get pulled out of position and stretched at times by Mexico’s attacks.

Meanwhile, Blind’s movement, in both his willingness to close down and hesitance to move forward for a pass, meant that the team were lacking the dig and determination to win every ball in the midfield that De Jong brought in each of the first three games. As a result, Mexico had a great deal of freedom in the midfield while the Oranje couldn’t build any momentum. Even with this counter attacking, reactionary style, El Tri had more time on the ball than they ever should have had.

And it was with Mexico’s opener that the lack loss of De Jong proved crucial. Dos Santos did remarkably well to take the ball on and blast it into the corner past Jasper Cillessen, but Blind’s reluctance to put his weight into the challenge as he looked to block his path to goal made it too easy for the former Barcelona striker to get such an excellent shot away.

That wasn’t the only weakness of the Dutch, though. Van Gaal opted to slot Paul Verhaegh into the right back position ahead of Daryl Janmaat for tactical reasons.

“I think our build up will improve by this decision,” the coach told NOS. “Janmaat did a very good job, but in possession we have to improve. With Verhaegh I hope our passing game improves.”

However, the switch was completely counter-productive. The Dutch failed to have any build up at all, let alone one that the 30-year-old Augsburg player could enhance. Defensively, he was beaten for pace time and again by Layun and rarely closed him down. His reactions and anticipation also left him at further disadvantage against an unpredictable player.

While Blind was part of the problem for Mexico’s goal, Verhaegh’s removal was part of the solution. The Oranje became the controlling team after the goal, with Van Gaal throwing on Depay for the right-back.

The attacker began to look for the spaces in behind the Mexico full-backs but there was a great deal less of it by the time he arrived as Miguel Herrera directed his team to sit much deeper and make sure they gave nothing away. But with Depay and Robben on, they were able to make sure their opponents’ backline was kept stretched.

Robben, so effective and decisive in every game, tore down the left wing repeatedly, cutting in but finding himself overwhelmed and unable to release the rocket of shot he’s packing. When he did tear it down the flank, though, he was unlucky to be brought down and denied a penalty, and then later kept out by Guillermo Ochoa, the top performing goalkeeper of the competition.

With the Dutch in complete control but being left frustrated in front of goal and finding it extremely difficult to get in behind the defence, Van Gaal threw on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a strict No.9 and pure goal machine.

Huntelaar’s great finishing ability and prowess in the box made him the ideal player to come on, but in the first moments it seemed he was going to be wasted as the team just began to lob diagonal balls into the box aimed at the Schalke star, which made it extremely difficult for him to deal with. The decision paid off, though, when a corner was sent deep into the Mexico box. Huntelaar rose to meet it and instead of sending it towards Ochoa, headed all the way back to the edge of the box, where Sneijder pinged it straight into the net.

That slam from the Galatasaray man sent the Dutch into a furore. Relief, excitement, utter joy. There was no way they could throw it away now. At least there was another 30 minutes of extra-time to keep control and take it home.

But the Dutch weren’t going to settle for the draw after 90 minutes. Robben, again bursting down the flank, took it to the byline and, although he exaggerated it, went down under Rafael Marquez’s challenge, and the referee pointed to the spot.

The outrage that followed from Mexico ensured there was a long delay before Huntelaar could take the penalty. The pressure built upon him, increasing exponentially with every second.

Huntelaar, though, wasn’t about to throw away his chance. Overlooked constantly at international level despite an excellent goalscoring record, this was his chance. He had become third in line for the centre-forward role, with Jeremain Lens being the striker Van Gaal looked to more so in the group stages because of his speed and mobility in the counter attacking style. This, then, was Huntelaar’s chance to make his mark on the World Cup. Boom. He smashed it perfectly into the corner.

It was all over.

Oranje go through and dream is kept alive.

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