After the brilliance of their victory over the world champions, the Netherlands so nearly came crashing back down to Earth with a bump from Down Under. In a thrilling contest in Porto Alegre, an inexperienced Australia side gave the Dutch all they could handle before eventually falling to an admirable but agonizing 3-2 defeat.
A match in-keeping with the proactive action that has so delightfully dominated this World Cup could be summed up by decisive action at both ends of the pitch mere seconds apart midway through the second half. With the score tied at 2-2, impressive Australian winger Matthew Leckie had a glorious chance to put his underdog team in front heading into the closing stages. Instead for reasons only known to him, he went for his chest, the effort was easily saved and the Dutch broke. In no time at all, with the Australians still ruing that missed opportunity, substitute Memphis Depay let fly with a shot from 25 yards that caught out goalkeeper Matthew Ryan as his two hands to the ball failed to keep it out of the net.
It was desperately cruel for Australia, but ultimately Dutch quality had prevailed. Still, the undoubted moment of the match was provided by a man in yellow and green. Veteran Tim Cahill, who will miss the final match of the group through suspension, left a brilliant final mark on the World Cup stage with a stunning volley to immediately equalize Arjen Robben’s equalizer. In the second half, Australia shocked further by taking the lead through a Mile Jedinak penalty. But this time it was the Dutch who provided the immediate reply through Robin van Perise, who had earlier joined Cahill in getting his second yellow card of the World Cup. After harrying their opponents all over the pitch for 60 minute, Australian legs understandably tired, allowing the Dutch to prosper.
Ange Postecoglou’s team, who came to Brazil with little expectation, will now almost certainly be leaving Brazil at the first opportunity after back-to-back defeats, but they will do so with their heads firmly held high. Having made it two wins out of two, the Netherlands can begin planning for the Round of 16 if Chile gets anything from their game later in the day against Spain. If that doesn’t happen, Louis van Gaal’s men will likely need to avoid similar complacency to what they displayed early on here when they take on Chile on Monday.
The Netherlands went with the same 3-5-2 system that allowed them to go on and tear Spain apart in their opening encounter last Friday. But Postecoglou had devised an admirable strategy to counter the Dutch approach. Far from simply sitting back and hoping for the best, Australia consistently pressed all three of the Dutch center-backs, with Tommy Oar and Leckie supporting Cahill from out wide. And the pressing was backed up behind them in midfield, with the Netherlands allowed no time on the ball and unable to build any prolonged spells of possession.
Such a proactive approach, of course, comes with its risks. There had already been warnings about the threat of Australia getting caught high up the pitch and there was little surprise when Robben’s devastating pace brought the opening goal. With 20 minutes gone, Australian center-back Alex Wilkinson was caught out, Robben burst clear and no one could get near him before he swept a shot into the net.
The surprise was that the goal didn’t prove the catalyst for the Netherlands to go on and control the game. Indeed, you could barely blink before the ball was in the net at the other end. From Ryan McGowan’s long diagonal ball over the top, Stefan de Vrij was caught out, allowing Cahill to watch the ball all the way onto his left boot and hit an unstoppable volley in off the crossbar. Cahill’s competitive approach saw him booked for the second game running soon after, but a fifth World Cup goal for the 34-year-old left a lasting impression.
His tackle also left a lasting impression on Bruno Martins Indi, who appeared to seriously injure himself on the fall. The defender was taken off to give Van Gaal the chance to switch to a 4-3-3 at half-time by bringing on Depay. The young winger would go onto make a major impact, but first Australia’s own substitute made his mark. Oliver Bozanic had been introduced to counter the Dutch formation shift and it was his cross struck the hand of Daryl Janmaat to give Australia a penalty. It was certainly a harsh decision, but Jedinak made no mistake from the spot.
Once more the lead did not last long. Depay cut in from the left and slotted a slick pass through for Van Persie, who finished emphatically to join his strike partner on three goals for the tournament. Had Australia gone back in front soon after, perhaps they would have got the adrenaline pumping enough to see out a famous victory. Instead, Leckie missed a chance that will haunt him for weeks if not months to come and Ryan erred to allow the Netherlands to survive.