World Cup 2014: Stage set for Wesley Sneijder to take leading role in Dutch play

 

Salvador

The Netherlands return to the place where it all began today in their World Cup quarter-final against Costa Rica. It was here in Salvador three weeks and one day ago that they delivered a stunning statement of intent by demolishing the World Cup holders Spain with an electric exhibition of counter-attacking football.

It was an evening that set the tone for a World Cup of goals, and an evening that left a worldwide audience marvelling at quite brilliant goals from Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. That pair stole the headlines then but as the Dutch step out once more inside the Arena Fonte Nova, it seems a particularly fitting venue for the third of their potential match-winners, Wesley Sneijder. After all, Salvador is the home of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art; a walk through the streets of the old town offers the sight of local men performing their bewildering mix of kicks and spins and acrobatics and Sneijder would surely appreciate their remarkable athleticism and energy given he owes his own presence in Brazil to a similar discipline: kick-boxing.

The man who sparked the dramatic Dutch fightback in the last round against Mexico with a thumping equaliser was not even guaranteed a place on the plane to Brazil last summer. Van Gaal first stripped him of the captaincy and then dropped him from his squad for the friendly against Portugal in August 2013. It was a wake-up call for the Galatasaray midfielder and it worked, Sneijder responding by enlisting the help of Dutch kick-boxer Gokhan Saki who helped restore the player to optimal fitness. He arrived at their World Cup camp, in his own words, feeling like a 22-year-old again. Van Gaal has been impressed. “He was in great physical shape when he arrived here and I was pleasantly surprised,” he said yesterday. The goal against Mexico was his reward. “I wasn’t surprised because he has this technique, added Van Gaal.

 

This is a very different  Sneijder from the last World Cup in South Africa. Then he was the Dutch hero, who, fresh from lifting the Champions League with Internazionale, hit the round of 16 winner against Slovakia, then headed the goal that beat Brazil in the quarter-finals.

Today he is one of the older heads, helping a young generation of Dutch talents. He does not have the ear of Van Gaal as Van Persie does but plays his role in a group who have impressed Dutch observers with their unity.

“He is one of the five so- called older players that are leading this team,” said Van Gaal. “We have four or five older players and their role is substantial because we have a young group of players. It is good for a coach to have these players who will look after the youngsters.” This unity is reflected in their spread of scorers with seven different players having contributed to their unrivalled 12-goal tally.

It seems strange to think that when the Oranje last landed in Salvador, there was a debate still swirling around the Dutch press about Van Gaal’s tactics and their perceived negativity. Those arguments disintegrated like the Spanish defence and Van Gaal admitted that confidence has increased since. “The Dutch team are doing OK,” said a deadpan Van Gaal at his pre-match press conference.

“The Dutch media didn’t expect we would get so far but our goal has always been to become world champions. We always said we’re a team that is very difficult to beat.” And he believes they are the best counter-attacking team. “We have not played as well in terms of ball possession but when the opposition has the ball we are one of the best teams if not the best,” he said.

In this respect the absence of the injured Nigel de Jong, the man who wins the ball back to spark these quick transitions, is a headache for Van Gaal. Jonathan de Guzman or Jordy Clasie could take his place, or, alternately, Van Gaal may move Daley Blind into a midfield holding role, but Van Gaal admitted: “He’s an important element in pressing and it is not easy to find a replacement as he has qualities the others don’t have.”

If Costa Rica do prevail, they will become the first World Cup semi-finalists from the Concacaf region since USA in 1930 and Van Gaal said there was no danger of taking them lightly. Mexico, a team with a similar approach, ran the Dutch close and he is too canny to take anything granted. “I think it is the best World Cup in the last 30 years as there is so much competition, the players are so hungry and the differences so tiny,” he said. It has been that way since the first night in Salvador and today the Oranje will look to add yet more colour to this great unfolding spectacle.

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