This was one of the great victories of Dutch football and one of the World Cup’s great comebacks. The Netherlands overcame the suffocating heat of Fortaleza and beat perhaps the tournament’s outstanding keeper twice in the last moments of this contest to reach the quarter-finals.
The game featured the save of the tournament and it featured one of the goals of the tournament.
Only when they fell behind to Giovanni dos Santos’s spectacular drive did the Netherlands muster any resistance. It culminated in a shot from Wesley Sneijder as the ball fell to him a few feet outside the area. It was struck beautifully, powerfully and straight and Guillermo Ochoa, who earlier had somehow pushed a point-blank header from Stefan de Vrij on to his own post, stood motionless as the ball smashed into the net.
You might have expected the Netherlands, who had dominated the second half much as Mexico had dominated the first, to have regrouped and waited for extra-time. There was to be no extra-time. Arjen Robben, who might have had a penalty before the interval and had seen Ochoa save brilliantly as he bore down upon him after it, launched another run at speed. Rafael Marquez carelessly left a leg outstretched and Robben went down.
The Netherlands do not have a great record when it comes to penalties, having lost a World Cup and European Championship semi-final on spot-kicks and Robin van Persie, the man Louis van Gaal would have expected to take it, had already been substituted.
It fell to Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Andrea Pirlo used to mock Silvio Berlusconi’s obsession with bringing Huntelaar to Milan, arguing he was simply not good enough to withstand the pressures of performing at San Siro. They could be no greater pressure now and Pirlo himself could not have taken the penalty better. For Ochoa there was just the man of the match award, presumably voted for before Holland’s comeback. For the Dutch, the road to the semi-finals appears open.
As Mexican supporters gathered in Fortaleza, they carried an air of pessimism along with their luggage. Mexico had only ever reached a World Cup quarter-final when hosting the event and they would be playing the team that had scored more goals in this tournament than anyone else. Meanwhile, they sighed, Costa Rica would be playing Greece.
Nevertheless, looked at objectively, there were several reasons for Mexico to be confident. They had played well ever since arriving in Brazil and they had played in Fortaleza earlier in the tournament, putting together a superb rearguard action that kept Brazil at bay.
But more importantly, there was the heat, which was a demonstration of Andrea Pirlo’s statement that “there are two World Cups, one in the north and one in the south”. This, metaphorically, was the most northern game of the tournament.
“The players showed they have the belief to fight through to the end,” he said. “Let me tell you that the Dutch media thought we would never survive the first round and so how we are suddenly favourites to qualify for the semis is something I have difficulty imagining. But with the team spirit that brought us this victory I think we will be very difficult to beat.”
Pirlo made that statement in the wake of Italy’s 1-0 defeat by Costa Rica in Recife and Fortaleza lies 400 miles nearer the Equator. The skies above the Castelao were bright, unforgiving blue and during the game there were vast swathes of empty seats – all exposed to the sun.
Video: Netherlands vs Mexico match report
The one-time Liverpool forward would find the environment very different to the sand dunes at Waalwijk on Holland’s North Sea coast where he used to train. The pitch-side temperature here was 38.8 degrees.
Before 10 minutes were up, Van Gaal had lost Nigel de Jong with an injury and reshuffled once more, bringing on Bruno Martins Indi, who had suffered concussion against Australia and moving Daley Blind up into position as a holding midfielder, a role he plays for Ajax.
From the very start until Dos Santos scored, the Dutch found themselves pushed back and it was not the flank patrolled by Kuyt that Mexico exploited but the right wing, where Paul Verhaegh found himself exposed relentlessly by Miguel Ayun. Soon the shots began being aimed at Jasper Cillessen’s goal. One from Hector Herrera was wide by inches, another from Dos Santos was saved by Cillessen’s knee.
Then, as Herrera flicked the ball over his marker, the Porto midfielder was caught in a sandwich between Ron Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij. There seemed no obvious reason why it should not have been a penalty but the referee, Pedro Proenca, awarded a corner.
The Netherlands, who produced nothing else of note in the first half, should also have had a penalty. Arjen Robben had looked very wound up before kick-off, running off and jumping up and down between the two national anthems.
These were not conditions for a man whose game is based on pure pace but the one time before the interval Robben did slip his marker he was fouled twice in the area. His reputation as a diver may have cost Robben the decision but the Netherlands were fortunate to go into the interval level, although they were not to stay lucky for very long.
Three minutes after the restart Dos Santos pulled away from Blind and drove home from 25 yards. It had been coming and to make it through the Dutch would now have more than the elements to overcome. But overcome them they did.
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