The Netherlands came back from the brink to break Mexican hearts with two goals in the dying minutes to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory and progress to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup.
Entering the final three minutes of regulation time in the oppressive heat of Fortaleza, Giovani dos Santos’ spectacular strike just after half-time appeared to be sending Mexico through to their first World Cup quarterfinal since 1986 and first ever away from home. Instead, their incredible record of Round of 16 exits was to extend to six.
First Wesley Sneijder, anonymous throughout the contest as he had been for much of the World Cup, came up big with a thumping finish off of a corner. And then, in the second minute of injury time, with the match heading toward an extended 30 minutes, Arjen Robben went down into the box appealing for a penalty for the third time in the contest. This time the referee obliged as the Dutch forward went down theatrically, but justifiably, over the carelessly outstretched leg of Mexico captain Rafa Marquez. Substitute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar sent the again brilliant Guillermo Ochoa the wrong way to complete an extraordinary turnaround.
The result was a testament to Dutch composure and determination in the face of elimination and the stifling conditions, while not being at the best. For Mexico, it was a most painful way to exit having earned so many plaudits for the way in which coach Miguel Herrera has transformed the team from their struggles in qualification. The agony will perhaps be most keenly felt by Marquez, who came back from international exile to play superbly in an unprecedented fourth World Cup as captain. Ultimately, his error proved costly in ensuring a quarterfinal remained beyond him and his country.
From the off it was clear that the temperature, which had a real feel of 97 degrees Fahrenheit at pitch level was going to have a strong impact on the spectacle. The opening 45 minutes was played at a slow tempo, with the Netherlands, who again opted for a three-man backline, keeping plenty of possession, but unable to get their dangerous front two of Robben and Robin van Persie into the game. Mexico, defending diligently, posed more threat going forward. Hector Herrera again gave a strong account of himself, but missed the best opportunity when scuffing a shot wide of the post.
The Netherlands, which lost Nigel de Jong in the opening minutes, had their first real threatening attack right before half-time. It came from a Mexico error, when Márquez slipped stretching for the ball and then got back as fast as his 35-year-old legs would carry him to try and deny Robben the chance to shoot. Both Márquez and to an even greater degree Hector Moreno, coming across from the other side, appeared to foul Robben in the box. Mexico escaped, although suffered the blow of their best defender, Moreno, being taken off injured to be replaced by the young Diego Reyes.
By that point, the match had already become the first ever in a World Cup to have an official Cooling Break, such was the draining heat. Just three minutes after the half-time interval it appeared that history would also be made with Mexico finally breaking their streak of second-round frustration.
Dos Santos’ undoubted but often frustrating talent came up big on the international stage once more to put Mexico in front. Taking a poor Ron Vlaar defensive header down on his chest, the Villarreal man sent an unstoppable drive with his left foot soaring into the side of the net from 25 yards.
Almost as soon as Mexico went ahead, the momentum shifted. It was now the Netherlands threatening and Mexico increasingly pinned back and struggling to mount counter attacks. That pattern was exacerbated when Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal brought on Memphis Depay and once again switched to 4-3-3. Meanwhile, Herrera took off his goalscorer and replaced him with extra midfielder in Javier Aquino as Mexico attempted to hold what they had.
With Ochoa again in sensational form, it appeared they would succeed. The free agent, whose man-of-the-match performance in frustrating Brazil has already assured him numerous admirers, made a spectacular reaction stop to somehow turn Stefan de Vrij’s close-range volley from a corner onto the post. Ochoa had to be alert, too, to block Robben’s right-footed shot after the forward this time skipped past a labored tackle from Márquez.
With victory in sight entering the dying minutes, Ochoa could do nothing to prevent the Dutch pulling level. Mexico’s vulnerability from set-pieces reared its head at the most inopportune of moments to allow Huntelaar to head back to the edge of the box, where Sneijder was in far too much space. The star of the Dutch side that went to the final four years ago finally announced himself in Brazil by smashing the ball into the net with unwavering technique.
Now staring at extra time, things were soon to get a whole lot worse for Mexico. With Robben looking to turn back from the byline, Márquez again made a tired, ill-advised tackle, stretching his leg across his opponent and giving Robben an invitation to go down that he was never going to decline. After much protestation, Huntelaar kept his cool to send Ochoa the wrong way and set up a quarterfinal for the Netherlands that they will be favorite to win against either Costa Rica or Greece.