In this tightest of World Cups individual genius carries a premium. This is why Bert van Marwijk has carefully nursed Arjen Robben into this tournament following his pre-competition calf injury. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, and plenty of rest. Yesterday in Durban he finally launched the Bayern Munich winger as the Dutch campaign reached the knock-out stages.
He was rewarded with a trademark Robben goal, the winger cutting in from the right and shooting inside the near post with his left after 18 minutes. That goal opened up a solid Slovakian defence, forcing them, eventually, to commit men forward.
Wesley Sneijder scored a second after 84 minutes, following an error by new Everton goalkeeper Jan Mucha. That made Robert Vittek's penalty, converted with the last kick of the match, academic. It might not have been had Vittek, who scored twice against Italy, converted either of a pair of earlier chances when the Slovaks trailed by one goal.
"When I saw Robben was in the line-up I knew he would make the Netherlands 50 per cent stronger, and I was correct," said Vladimir Weiss, Slovakia's coach. "We have been preparing for Robben for the past three days but he is a genius. He knows what he is doing, that is why he has played for the clubs he has."
"We are so pleased Robben is fit again," said Van Marwijk. "If you look at him you see he was decisive for us, but he is not yet the man he used to be. There is some uncertainty, some fear, so it was important to us he played 70 minutes.
"We had planned to wait and see, maybe play him for a half, maybe an hour, but he played 70 minutes. He has passed that hurdle now. We now have enormous possibilities in attack with speed and surprise."
The player himself admitted he did not feel back to his best yet. "It was great to be on pitch for the first moment, and to be decisive for the team is a good feeling," Robben said.
"I was pretty free in this game but I know I am not yet at my top level. I was pretty confident, when the ball came for the goal I knew it was a long sprint and I needed to be explosive and I was OK."
The ball was provided by Sneijder, who looked to release Robben over the top whenever he could - something for their opponents at Port Elizabeth on Friday afternoon to bear in mind. Receiving possession deep in his own half, on the left, with Slovakia pushing forward, he turned and played a pass over Radoslav Zabavnik's head. Robben raced away, came inside, beating Jan Durica and the recovering Zabavnik, then shot low past Mucha.
It was the only shot of note in the first half, though Robin van Persie went close following a flowing move that ended with Mark van Bommel crossing on the overlap.
After the break Robben again came to the fore bringing a good save from Mucha then providing a cross from which Gregory van der Wiel drew another sharp save.
With Mucha also denying Van Persie, Slovakia grew in confidence and should have levelled. Miroslav Stoch stretched Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg who then denied Vittek after Juraj Kucka put the striker clean through. As the Dutch wobbled Vittek also shot over.
"We should have settled the match but because we did not we were put under pressure and Stekelenburg saved us," said Van Marwijk. "Then we scored again, and on the whole match we deserved to win by far."
That second goal was contested by Weiss for it followed a quickly-taken free-kick for a foul by Liverpool's Martin Skrtel. "It can happen at the World Cup that the weakest link is the referee," he said. "That was the case again in this game. The referee invented a foul and it was a big decision."
However, more culpable was Mucha, who rushed from his goal to intercept but was beaten to Giovanni van Bronckhorst's free-kick by Dirk Kuyt. He squared to Sneijder and the game was over. Vittek's penalty, awarded after Stekelenburg tripped Martin Jakubko, was a footnote.
Van Marwijk, who is under pressure at home because the Dutch are not winning with enough style, said: "I would like to see everything converge in one match but you also want to win, and we are not doing a bad job.
"In every match we have shown we can control a match. We give the opposition the impression they will have few opportunities."
The Dutch are now unbeaten in 23 matches and he added: "We are here for one reason, and one reason only, to win. People can laugh but we have focus, we have talent."
Robben added: "It was not the best but it was efficient."
Holland (4-4-2): Stekelenburg, Van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst, Kuyt, Van Bommel, De Jong, Robben (Elia, 71), Sneijder (Afellay, 90), Van Persie (Huntelaar, 80).
Slovakia (4-4-2): Mucha, Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica,
Zabavnik (Jakubko, 87), Weiss, Kucka, Stoch, Hamsik (Sapara, 87), Jendrisek (Kopunek, 71), Vittek.
Referee: A Undiano (Spain).
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