When Andres Iniesta hit an extra-time winner for Spain in the World Cup final of 2010, it brought the familiar scene of heartache for millions of Dutch supporters. Once again, international football’s proverbial nearly men had promised so much only to falter at the final hurdle.
That defeat in Soccer City was the Oranje’s third in a World Cup final, and it is mind-blowing to think that a football nation as huge as the Netherlands has never lifted the sport’s ultimate crown.
In fact, a European Championship triumph in 1988 remains their only ever major title success, and apart from that it has been decades of agony for one of international football’s most exciting outfits.
But Louis van Gaal’s men are now potentially just 180 minutes away from finally ending that anguish.
As expected, the Oranje romped through their qualifying campaign. The Dutch scored 34 times en route to picking up 28 of a possible 30 points. In addition to that, Robin van Persie hit 11 goals to lead UEFA’s individual scoring charts.
After the disastrous campaign at Euro 2012, under predecessor Bert van Marwijk, Van Gaal had come in and helped his stars rediscover their form. The future looked bright for the Oranje.
However, their preparations for the tournament were badly dented by March’s devastating news of a season-ending injury to star midfielder Kevin Strootman. In the absence of the influential Roma man, Van Gaal saw no other option but to shuffle the pack by ditching the team’s usual 4-3-3 formation in favour of an experimental 5-3-2.
The change in tactics, combined with an immensely difficult group containing both Spain and Chile, inevitably led to more subdued expectations from the normally electric Oranje support.
When news of Van Gaal’s appointment as the next Manchester United manager broke just weeks before the tournament, Dutch fans could have been forgiven for pre-empting a similar outcome as that ill-fated campaign in Ukraine two years earlier.
But the Netherlands sent shock waves across the globe with their incredible 5-1 opening-game demolition of Spain. The Dutch had completely overwhelmed their tormentors of four years ago and followed that up with professional performances against both Chile and Australia to top Group B with a maximum nine points.
|World Cup 2014: Group B|
|Netherlands||9 pts||GD +7|
|Chile||6 pts||GD +2|
|Spain||3 pts||GD -3|
|Australia||0 pts||GD -6|
Van Gaal’s side had also netted 10 goals in those three group games, more than any of the other 31 competing nations in Brazil.
Perhaps more impressive, though, has been their resilience in the knockout phase. Those wins over Mexico and Costa Rica also demonstrated Van Gaal’s immense tactical knowledge, and the 62-year-old’s magic touch could help guide the Dutch to football’s ultimate prize for the first time.
With under 15 minutes to play and his side trailing Mexico by a goal in their last-16 encounter, Van Gaal took a huge gamble by withdrawing star striker Robin van Persie. Admittedly, the Manchester United attacker had been well off the pace throughout, but to replace your biggest goal threat at such a crucial time requires nerves of steal.
Fortunately, the Dutch manager possesses bags of confidence, and that decision to substitute paid dividends as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar turned the game on its head in a matter of minutes.
As per WhoScored.com, the Schalke 04 striker managed just seven touches during his time on the pitch, but that didn’t prevent him from firing the Netherlands to the quarter-final as the Dutch claimed a dramatic 2-1 victory.
The Netherlands had to endure another huge scare in the last eight. Despite dominating proceedings throughout and creating ample chances, they simply could not beat Costa Rica’s inspired goalkeeper, Keylor Nevas.
Even after firing that blank, the Netherlands remain the joint top-scoring team of the tournament alongside Colombia on 12 goals from five matches. Their lethal finishing was also evidenced by the emphatic manner in which they dispatched all four penalties with minimal fuss in that nerve-racking shootout.
Perhaps more telling, though, was the fascinating situation that developed regarding the Netherlands goalkeeper.
With just seconds remaining, Van Gaal decided to replace first-choice custodian Jasper Cillessen with understudy Tim Krul. This proved to be a masterstroke by the Dutch manager, as the Newcastle shot-stopper saved two of Costa Rica’s penalties to confirm another semi-final appearance for the European giants.
What’s more, as per BBC Sport, the extraordinary move had been pre-planned by the Dutch manager. Van Gaal was reported as saying: "We all thought Tim was the best keeper to stop penalties. He is taller and has a longer reach. It worked out. That was beautiful. I'm a bit proud of that."
Had the fearless ploy backfired, Van Gaal would’ve been open to mass scrutiny, and you can bet that the world’s media would have been firing bullets from all directions. However, the plan worked perfectly and saw the future Manchester United boss heralded as a genius.
Van Gaal’s brilliance wasn’t the substitution itself, but rather the fact he managed to convince the Costa Rican players that Krul would emerge as the hero.
The manager may have pointed toward the 26-year-old’s stature and 6'4" frame as vindication for the switch, but the Newcastle keeper has kept out just two of 20 penalties faced during his five-year spell in England, according to Nick Miller of The Guardian.
Nevertheless, the dramatic late substitution inevitably allowed doubts to creep into the minds of Costa Rica’s heroes, and that in turn helped to ensure it was the Netherlands who advanced to Wednesday’s semi-final in Sao Paulo.
As well as personifying Van Gaal’s "no fear" approach to management, it also highlighted the notion that it takes an entire squad to succeed at a World Cup. The unity among the Dutch squad has the potential to help them finally end their hoodoo in Brazil.
The Netherlands may boast the world-class attacking talents of Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, but they are very much a team that work as one, and that could give them the edge against Argentina.
Alejandro Sabella’s South American giants may boast the world’s best player in Lionel Messi, but aside from the dazzling displays of their talisman, Argentina have largely been quite disappointing in Brazil.
Granted, they deserve to be commended for reaching this stage and are still very much in the hunt for a third World Cup crown. However, if the Oranje can keep the four-time Ballon d’Or winner quiet, then you have to say that the advantage is with Van Gaal’s men.
Angel Di Maria may have received heaps of abuse for his lackluster showing against Switzerland, yet it was the Real Madrid man’s tireless running that eventually led to cracks appearing in the Swiss defence. Inevitably it was the attacking midfielder who applied the finishing touch to score the game’s only goal from Messi’s killer pass.
Without Di Maria, who joins striker Sergio Aguero on the sidelines, the reliance on Messi increases tenfold.
Although the little magician has delivered so far, netting four goals en route to being named Man of the Match in the first four games, the alarm bells should be ringing due to the inadequate performances of several stars.
Additionally, the fact that their star man hasn’t scored in either of his country’s two knockout games will provide a boost for the Netherlands.
The Dutch have already shown their credentials in Brazil, particularly with that demolition of Spain, while they’ve also beaten strong South American opponents in Chile. The Oranje Army have every reason to believe their side will book a second successive World Cup final appearance—a feat that would match their previous best record of back-to-back finals in 1974 and 1978.
At this stage of the tournament, every game will be tight and tentative, particularly in the opening minutes. This could play perfectly into the hands of Holland, who tend to grow in stature as the games progress.
Of 12 Dutch goals at this year’s finals, 10 of them have come during the second half of matches. Combined with Van Gaal’s astute analysis of where a game can be won and lost, this has to be their best chance of finally getting their hands on the game’s most sought-after trophy.
The Netherlands have been far from perfect in this World Cup but then, for all its excitement, this hasn’t been a vintage tournament for any of the remaining sides. With Neymar’s tournament-ending injury casting serious doubts on Brazil’s ability to win a sixth title on home soil, along with Germany’s unmistakable lack of pace at the back, the doors have been wide-open for any of the remaining four teams to claim the title vacated by Spain.
Van Gaal’s appointment as the next Manchester United boss is absolutely huge news. Could it be written in the stars for him to enter the Old Trafford hot seat as a World Cup manager?
Of all the teams to never win a World Cup, the Netherlands are easily the highest profiled, and lifting the trophy at the Maracana on July 13 would be the perfect way to announce themselves at the summit of international football.
2014 may just be the year for Dutch glory.
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