24 June 2010

Holland 2-1 Cameroon

Boulahrouz Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
Van Bommel De Jong
Kuyt Sneijder Van der Vaart
Van Persie

Geremi N'koulou Mbia Assou-Ekotto
Nguemo Makoun Chedjou Bong
Eto'o Choupo-Moting

van Persie 36'
Eto'o 65' (pen)
Huntelaar 83'

It may have been an enjoyable, open game, but there's not a whole lot to divine from this match. Which isn't all that surprising given that Holland had already qualified while Cameroon's exit was assured. It wasn't quite friendly pace, but it didn't look like most of the matches so far this tournament either.

With the pressure off, Cameroon finally played to their potential, controlling the ball and threatening through Geremi and Eto'o. And despite the tame performance, conceding their first goal in this World Cup, the Dutch will be happy as well. Van Persie got on the scoresheet, Robben looked impressive off the bench, and it's three wins from three to ensure qualification and a round of 16 match-up with Slovakia. Admittedly, it's somewhat strange watching Holland grind out results, but it's also something the country's rarely been able to do.

Outside of Boulahrouz for van der Wiel, it was the same starting XI for the Netherlands, with the right back likely protected from picking up a second yellow that'd lead to his suspension. Cameroon started the brighter, with the shackles off and the side better balanced in a 4-4-2 due to Bong protecting the oft-beaten left flank that Assou-Ekotto had been left alone on in the first two matches.

Despite some lax defending from Mathijsen and Heitinga and some dubious moments from Stekelenburg, Holland still looked the more dangerous, almost always through Sneijder. Kuyt should have opened the scoring in the 32nd, put through on the right by Boulahrouz on a move unsurprisingly started by Sneijder, only to shoot narrowly wide of the far post. But van Persie struck minutes later on a lovely flowing move – Kuyt to Van Persie to van der Vaart back to van Persie, with the striker deftly beating Souleymanou with a right-footed shot between the keeper's legs.

But Cameroon responded, with Geremi's crosses from the right a constant threat, and were even stronger after the interval, although some of that was down to even less Dutch pressing and possession after taking the lead. Eto'o deserved his equalizer from the spot, given the chance by a needless van der Vaart handball from on Geremi's free kick (I can never understand why players put their arms in the air when in the wall).

But Robben's entrance minutes later reinvigorated Holland. He replaced van der Vaart, but that he went to the right (with Elia, who had come on for Kuyt not long before, going to the left) might not bode well for the Liverpool "winger." Still, I find it hard to believe van Marwijk will leave Kuyt out despite Robben's preferred position cutting in on his stronger foot. Today's not the best game to judge from, but I think Sneijder and van der Vaart are too similar to truly succeed in the same side, while Kuyt's work ethic and tracking back are important to a Dutch side that still defends tentatively, especially when the attacking van der Wiel is in the side.

And it was Robben's excellent work that led to Holland's winner after a jaw-droppingly delicious pass from Sneijder, easily turning Song before cannoning a shot off the post, which fell fortuitously to Huntelaar to slot into an empty net. Good work from the Munich winger could have led to a third had the referee been so inclined, smartly setting up Huntelaar, who was barged over by Mbia, only to see the referee shrug and turn away. Were there more riding on this game, the referee probably would have given it, but by this point, it would have been more nails than the coffin needed.

Once again, I'm tempted to write that it was almost an anti-Dutch performance. Even considering circumstances, you wouldn't have expected Cameroon to have more possession that Holland. The Netherlands didn't have a corner kick until the 82nd minute, compared to six for the Indomitable Lions. And the only goal conceded during the group stage was an unnecessary penalty in today's game. As ESPN repeatedly pointed out, Holland has never kept clean sheets in all three group games. They easily could have today if not for van der Vaart's moment of madness.

Regardless of Holland's new-found ability to win ugly, I think we'll see a more familiar side in the knockout rounds, especially with Robben back in the team. The shape will remain the same, with two holding midfielders in contrast to the Clockwork Orange of old, but Robben will make a massive difference. Even considering my bias in favor of Kuyt, I'm hoping van der Vaart makes way, which should lead to a more balanced side with better positional discipline, instead of Sneijder and van der Vaart playing in the same spaces far too often. There's a reason Kuyt's started 31 consecutive games for Holland – the longest streak for a Dutch outfield player in 49 years – and it's not because others were injured or he has naked pictures of every manager he's ever played for.

And despite the narrow scorelines in these group matches, Holland has to be considered one of the favorites going into the next round. They've always coped well with that label, right?

No comments :