Robben's strike lays to rest ghosts of past penalty failures

Sweden 0 Netherlands 0 Netherlands win 5-4 on penalties

If any one country can be relied upon not to conform and to go out of their way to be unconventional, then it must be the Netherlands. So it was here on Saturday, when the Dutch finally prevailed in their fifth penalty shoot-out in 12 years - without, if you please, giving a thought to perfecting the art on the training field.

Practice makes perfect, so they say, but not presumably when you are Dutch. "Sweden practised them yesterday and you saw what happened,'' said Dick Advocaat, the Netherlands manager, who despite his record-breaking 54 games in charge, had not presided over any of the national team's four previous failures in shoot-outs.

As it happened, though, Advocaat was treading a desperately thin line. For it was not as if his team recorded a resounding triumph in the latest tension-packed denouement. Philip Cocu's penalty actually came back off an upright, and it was only with the help of two Swedish failures, from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Olof Mellberg, that the Netherlands went through. "The quality of our players made the difference,'' said Advocaat, who possesses the same streak of arrogance that has been endemic in Dutch football since the 1970 World Cup.

Woe betide him if the Dutch continue to forsake penalty practices and go out to Portugal after another shoot-out in Wednesday's semi-final. Obviously the coach, who has already been pilloried for his substitutions in the group game against the Czech Republic, cannot always get it right. All the same, there has to be a moral somewhere.

Where other nations, including England, spent long hours attempting to master the knack of beating the goalkeeper from 12 yards, the Dutch give it a miss. You can imagine it. "Sod that for a laugh,'' says Ruud van Nistelrooy to Advocaat at the end of a training session. "Let's go and watch a video or see if Lisbon has a restaurant specialising in our favourite Dutch dish of Hutspot'' - which for those not in the know, happens to be a cocktail of carrots, potatoes and onions served with rookworst, a smoked sausage.

Nistelrooy did in fact despatch the Netherlands' first penalty. "I think we were the team who tried to attack the most,'' he said with some justification. "We played well and showed great character to go through.''

The Manchester United striker had been well contained for the first hour by Andreas Jakobsson and Mellberg, the Villa man with whom he had engaged in a spot of eye-balling after being accused of diving.

Van Nistelrooy started to find more room thereafter, getting on the end of chances, none of which he could put away. Nor for that matter could Arjen Robben, the winger so controversially replaced by Advocaat against the Czechs. The bonus for Chelsea's new signing now is that he is virtually guaranteed to finish every game, which was a good thing for the Dutch considering that ultimately, he won the game for them with the final spot-kick.

"The decision about the sixth penalty was not taken by the bench, we did that ourselves," Robben said. "I just picked up the ball, blocked out my common sense and scored."

Like Robben, whose earlier shot had squirmed through Andreas Isaksson's hands to bobble against an upright, Sweden also twice struck the woodwork, as an already enthralling encounter improved even more so during extra time.

Henrik Larsson skimmed the bar and Fredrik Ljungberg hit a post. It was for a clumsy challenge, incidentally on Ljungberg, that Frank de Boer was the first of five players in the game to be booked. The injury that the Dutch defender received in the collision may well put him out of the Portugal game.

Wilfred Bouma proved himself an able deputy, looking a trifle more trustworthy at the back than Jaap Stam, who got away with the game's most horrendous mistake when Cocu cleared Ibrahimovic's shot off the line.

All of which left Tommy Soderberg a sadly vanquished figure after his last game as Sweden's joint coach. "We have got to look at this in a positive way,'' his assistant Lars Lagerback said. "We were beaten by a golden goal at the last World Cup. Now it's penalties. We are getting closer.'' And so they are.

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