For the last 30 years, every generation of Dutch footballers has been measured against the standard set by the Johan Cruyff teams of the 1970s and been found wanting but come Sunday night, the entire history of the Dutch game could be rewritten.
This team of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie is on the brink of changing for ever the way that their great, albeit small, football nation regards as its place in the game. The generally irascible and outspoken Cruyff casts a long shadow over the Dutch players who have come after him but that will all change on Sunday if this Holland team can win their seventh straight game at this tournament.
Twice Cruyff's team reached the final and lost and now the boys of 2010 have the chance to give Holland a seat at the very top table of world football. They may not be the perfectionists that the team of the 1970s were – it is hard to lay a claim to total football when you have Khalid Boulahrouz at right-back – but they took the game to Uruguay last night and they deserved to win for that reason above all.
In a World Cup where the biggest names have failed again and again, what sets Holland apart was that the two most famous reputations on their side – Sneijder and Robben – delivered when it mattered most with the decisive goals in the second half. This Dutch side, which drew 2-2 with England 11 months ago, is not breathtaking but they have seized their opportunity in a wide-open tournament.
That is not to say that the South Americans did not give their opponents a scare. A goal in injury time from Maxi Pereira, just minutes after Robben had left the pitch high-fiving his team-mates as if the game was over, made for a tense ending. For a moment it looked like that might come back to haunt the Dutch but they held out, thanks in part to a block from Robin van Persie of Egidio Arevalo's shot. The low-key nature of the Arsenal striker's reaction to the final whistle told you how he felt about his performance. He has scarcely got near the form he was in for Arsenal before that serious ankle injury in November and, in the six victories that his team have racked up in South Africa, he has been comprehensively overshadowed by the likes of Sneijder.
In spite of that Van Persie has a chance to achieve something remarkable in Johannesburg on Sunday. So too Dirk Kuyt, who is nothing like as talented as his team-mate but was effective again last night, also making a crucial tackle as the game became edgy after Uruguay's second goal. Neither men have had a happy season with their clubs in the Premier League but nothing compensates like the World Cup.
There is credit also due to Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch coach, who has been unflappable while managing to keep his team of strong, occasionally conflicting egos, together. He does attract criticism for his conservative approach but last night he substituted one of his two holding midfielders, Demy de Zeeuw, for Rafael van der Vaart at half-time and won the game.
The oldest man on the pitch, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, has already said that he will retire after this tournament and the World Cup final is not a bad sign-off. The Holland captain scored a spectacular first goal on 18 minutes, striking the ball from the left channel and beating the Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera at his left post. Whatever the imponderables about the Jabulani ball, this one was unstoppable.
It settled the Dutch who had started anxiously. In the absence of the suspended Luis Suarez, Uruguay picked a 4-4-2 formation that struggled to make inroads into the Dutch defence. But it was hell to break Uruguay down, even with Sneijder and Robben.
You could still see the Dutch nerves in the aftermath of a nasty kick in the face for De Zeeuw, the replacement for the suspended Nigel de Jong. Martin Caceres had not intended any harm, but his bicycle kick had connected with the face of the Ajax midfielder. The Dutch team reacted badly and none worse than Sneijder, who crept up on Caceres' blind side and seemed to poke a finger in his eye.
Uruguay did not go to pieces having conceded, although their original plan was to keep it tight and try to catch the Dutch on the counter-attack. Had Holland scored a second before the Uruguayan equaliser then the game would have been virtually over. But they made few chances, the best of them an incisive little pass from Van Persie for Robben, away from whom Caceres managed to hustle the ball.
Diego Forlan's equaliser was a beauty, a goal from nothing made when he picked the ball up only halfway inside the Dutch half. He changed the direction of his run in the inside-right channel, switched on to his left foot and hit a shot that curved but was still close to Maarten Stekelenburg. There are doubts over the Ajax goalkeeper and the hand he got to the ball was not enough to keep it out. Shocked, the Dutch had to start again. The goal that gave them their breakthrough was fortunate but they deserved it. Sneijder has scored some vital goals for Internazionale this season and he struck when it mattered most. His shot from the left side took a slight deflection off Maxi Pereira, Van Persie stuck out a leg, missed the ball and the shot eluded Muslera at his far post.
It was the goal that set the game free. At last the Dutch could draw out their opponents and they had a third within three minutes. Kuyt crossed from the left and Robben, belying his image as a soft touch, got up to head the ball past Muslera. It was a classic, tough centre-forward's goal – the ball slightly behind Robben, forcing him to generate the power with his head – from a player who is anything but.
The Dutch were coasting by the time Maxi Pereira put in Uruguay's second with a neat finish from the right side of the box. At the final whistle some of the Uruguayans squared up to the Dutch on the pitch but the better team had won – and they knew it.
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera; M Pereira, Godin, Victorino, Caceres; Perez, Gargano, Arevalo, A Pereira (Abreu,78); Cavani, Forlan (Fernandez, 84).
Holland (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Boulahrouz, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst; Van Bommel, De Zeeuw (Van der Vaart, h-t); Robben (Elia, 89), Sneijder, Kuyt; Van Persie.
Referee R Irmatov (Uzbekistan).
Booked Uruguay: M Pereira, Caceres; Holland: Sneijder, Boulahrouz, Van Bommel.
Man of the match Sneijder.
The men who turned the game
Seemed to have the beating of the reserve left-back Caceras from the start of the match and soon drew a deserved yellow card from Maxi Pereira. Found the going harder in the second half, missing a good chance, before his excellent headed goal wrapped things up. 7/10
One of the outstanding players of the tournament – indeed, one of the world players of the year – Sneijder gave away possession more often than normal when trying to shrug off the attentive Egidio Arevalo. Booked, he lifted his team from their trough with a low curler for the second goal. 7/10
Shown to cover more distance than any other Dutch player, the Liverpool man was his usual industrious self. In one minute just before half-time he was chasing back to the left corner flag then promptly heading wide at the other end. Delivered a fine cross for Robben's goal. 7/10
Giovanni van Bronckhorst
Having recently celebrated a 100th international appearance – his last one will be in Sunday's final – the Dutch captain set his team on their way with a superbly struck drive in the 18th minute. Then, as Uruguay bravely fought their way back into the contest, he cleared off the line. 8/10
All white on the night, Uruguay's goalkeeper was less than squeaky clean with his first punch, giving Kuyt an early chance. But he could hardly be faulted for the Netherlands' goals, almost reaching Van Bronckhorst's drive even though it went in the top corner of the net. 6/10
The former Manchester United misfit bore much extra responsibility, taking on the captaincy and playing as the principal striker instead of Luis Suarez. Just as he seemed to be getting no change from the centre-halves, they sat off and let him hit a glorious goal. Almost added another. 8/10
Which was the best long-range strike of the World Cup?
G van Bronckhorst (Holland) v Uruguay
After a slow start to the tournament, players seem to have finally mastered the controversial Jabulani ball. The left-back set his sights and arrowed a 40-yard shot over Fernando Muslera.
K Honda (Japan) v Denmark
Lining the ball up 30 yards out and near the touchline, Honda unleashed a swerving, Ronaldo-esque free-kick to send Japan on their way into the second round of the tournament.
D Villa (Spain) v Chile
During Spain's 2-1 victory Villa took advantage of a dash out from Chile's goalkeeper to strike a curling effort over the defence into the back of an empty net.
C Tevez (Argentina) v Mexico
Tevez seized on a loose ball to unleash a rising 25-yard drive which gave goalkeeper Oscar Perez no chance of making a save.
S Muntari (Ghana) v Uruguay
After picking up the ball midway inside the Uruguayan half, Muntari was given space to turn and power a 35-yard effort inside the near post.
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