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Netherlands leave it late to start World Cup as they mean to go on

Senegal 0-2 Netherlands: Late goals from Cody Gakpo and Davy Klaassen were enough for the Dutch to earn all three points

Ben Burrows
Al Thumama Stadium
Monday 21 November 2022 18:26 GMT
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Cody Gakpo headed the crucial opener against Senegal
Cody Gakpo headed the crucial opener against Senegal (Getty Images)

It took 85 minutes but the Netherlands are finally alive at this World Cup. It took Cody Gakpo, with their very first shot on target of an even contest, to break a deadlock that didn't look like being broken and give the Dutch the start they so wanted here in Doha.

Louis van Gaal's side, back on this stage for the first time since 2014, have high hopes of a deep run after a strong qualifying campaign and they're on the board after a hard-won 2-0 victory over Senegal to tie Ecuador at the top of the fledgling Group A.

Van Gaal has been a central figure in the build-up to this tournament, with his admirably forthcoming - and forthright - views on the off-field concerns that have dogged it right from its inception a sharp contrast to almost all other managers here.

The potential too for a fairytale ending after a battle with cancer with this in all likelihood his last major tournament ride is a tantalising one in a World Cup otherwise so dragged down by negatives.

Africa Cup of Nations winners Senegal were buoyant coming in too, however, and carry the hopes of not only a country but a whole continent here in Qatar. The absence of Sadio Mane, a truly talismanic striker in every sense of the term, who scored the Afcon-winning penalty earlier this year, was felt in the way many feared it would be though. An attractive, attacking side with plenty of big name pedigree lacked the sprinkling of stardust required to put them over the top in a match they more than held their own in right until the very end.

If Sunday night's Qatar vs Ecuador tilt will mostly be remembered for a lack of tournament-opening atmosphere and a raft of empty seats, the same couldn't be said here with the Al Thumama Stadium alive with the sort of soundtrack you would expect from these two countries.

It was an even first-half with the swathe of noise and colour from the stands matched to creditable degree by energy and endeavour on the pitch, if there was a lack in any real proper quality in the final third. That, though, hardly a surprise with both shorn of their most dangerous attacking players for the start of this game and, in Senegal's case, the whole tournament.

Striker Boulaye Dia, one of the three coach Aliou Cisse has now turned to to shoulder the attacking burden in Mane's absence, was bright, flashing over in the early stages while another, Ismaila Sarr of Watford, saw perhaps the best opening either team had brilliantly denied by Virgil van Dijk, the Liverpool defender heading what looked very much like a top-corner bound shot over the bar.

At the other end Gakpo, linked heavily with move to the Premier League over the summer, was lively with the Dutch's best prods and probes often coming through the PSV man. One early and expertly timed dart in particular ended with a whipped cross across the box only for it to evade the sprawling Steven Bergwijn.

Vincent Janssen, the man Van Gaal charged with filling Memphis Depay's ample shoes for this opening game, ploughed a pretty thankless furrow up top with midfielder Frenkie de Jong instead fluffing the best Netherlands chance of the half. The Barcelona star so often seemingly blessed with all the time in the world, wanted far too much when a swifter shot was the far better option after being put in by Steven Berghuis, Senegal clearing their lines with far more ease than they should have been allowed to.

After an hour of watching his side huff and puff, Van Gaal had had enough as Depay, deemed not fit enough to play just 24 hours previous, was called from the bench. The former Manchester United striker's value to this team can't be overstated - he is one of Van Gaal's untouchables alongside De Jong - with his 18 goal involvements in qualifying by far leading the team.

It was another surprise Van Gaal call though that made the more telling immediate contribution. Goalkeeper Andries Noppert hadn't even been called up to the national side until the autumn of this year but the famously eccentric Netherlands boss sprang a surprise for this first outing by handing the 6ft8in stopper a first international cap for this one. And he needed all of that wingspan to keep out Dia's fierce near-post drive. A second attempt, that would not have counted after a linesman’s flag, minutes later was also well swatted away.

Klaassen secured all three points with a late second (AFP via Getty Images)

But with time ticking down and points looking like being shared, Gakpo seized his moment. A floated De Jong cross from the left was met with a telling touch, as he rose to head the ball home just out of Edouard Mendy's grasp.

With Senegal forced into committing bodies forward a counter-attacked second was always a danger and substitute Davy Klaassen provided it, sweeping home after Mendy palmed away Depay's bending shot.

The Oranje faithful roared - with relief as much as joy - to at last be heard over the drumming din of the Senegalese in the stands, and three points were finally and safely secured.

If this is to end in a fairytale for this Dutch side, it wasn't a bad start.

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