28 June 2010

Holland 2-1 Slovakia

Van der Wiel Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
De Jong Van Bommel
Robben Sneijder Kuyt
Van Persie

Pekarik Skrtel Durica Zabavnik
Kucha Hamsik
Jendrisek Stoch Weiss

Robben 18'
Sneijder 84'

Another efficient, workman-like win, with individual moments of brilliance leading to both goals. And again, the Dutch conceded after going two-up with the last kick of the game, conceding a penalty when the defense fell asleep in the 93rd minute. I don't know why anyone expected Holland to change their stripes after the group stage. It's not Cruyffian Total Football, but it's still clockwork.

Robben replaced van der Vaart (with Kuyt shifting to the left so Robben could play on his preferred flank), one returning from injury while the other picked up a calf strain in the previous match, and it was the unlikable genius who opened the scoring in the 18th minute. A brilliant over the top pass from Sneijder deep in his own half found Robben steaming down the right, and Durica allowed him to cut onto his preferred foot to slot low inside the near post.

With the Dutch looking more than comfortable, Slovakia did well to keep hold of the ball starting around the half-hour mark, finding that possession limited Holland's ability to punish them, but they were never able to truly threaten. Van Persie had opportunities to extend the gap in the 41st and 44th, first shooting tamely at the keeper then shinning wide, unable to turn on van Bommel's center after lovely work from Robben.

The Dutch had two more excellent chances soon after halftime, with Mucha saving Robben's shot from the same position as his goal and preventing Mathijsen from side-footing in Robben's clever low cross. At this point, Holland had five shots to Slovakia's zero.

But with the Netherlands increasingly casual, Slovakia finally hit their stride in the 67th, with Stekelenburg making two crucial saves within a minute. First, Stoch cut across the top of the box, only to see his shot tipped over, before Vittek was open 16 yards out, played onside, but the keeper was equal to the strike which could have seen him become Slovakia's all-time top scorer.

But Elia replaced Robben, Huntelaar replaced van Persie, and Holland finally got the much-needed second six minutes from time thanks to excellent work from Dirk Kuyt. Van Bronckhorst's quick free kick caught Slovakia unaware, still complaining about the foul, Kuyt's clever header completely took the on-rushing Mucha out of the picture, and the Liverpool man cleverly held his nerve, unselfishly waiting to center for an easy Sneijder tap-in.

Once again, the Netherlands were caught sound asleep after the crucial second, once again to an unnecessary penalty. In the third minute of injury time, Kucha's long-range shot was fortuitously deflected to an onside Jakubko, who was brought down by Stekelenburg when Holland couldn't clear. Vittek stepped up to get his deserved goal with the last kick of the game.

I know everyone assumes I'm biased, but I truly think Kuyt was the man of the match. He was just as effective on the left, popping up in both defense and attack, and protecting the aging van Bronckhorst. His assist for the goal was spectacular no matter whether Mucha should or shouldn't have come for the ball, and he could have had a goal of his own in the 73rd, forcing a save when he cut in from the flank to test the keeper. I still cannot fathom why people continually underrate him. He is crucial to the way Holland (and – sigh – Liverpool under Benitez) play. And yet again, some wonderful individualism from Sneijder and Robben opened up the scoring and made the critical difference.

That's four wins from four for the Netherlands, and an eight-straight victory for Oranje, breaking their all-time record. No matter whether Brazil or Chile win the afternoon match, the upcoming quarterfinal is going to be a tremendous spectacle.

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