The Netherlands garnered a spectacular dose of revenge for their World Cup final loss to Spain four years ago by kicking off their 2014 campaign with a thrilling and resounding 5-1 win over the world champions in Salvador.
It was a match that could not have been in sharper contrast to the dour affair in Johannesburg. This time the Netherlands came to play and after going down to a Xabi Alonso penalty following a foul on Diego Costa they crudely exposed the deficiencies in Spain’s backline and particularly with their goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Robin van Persie equalized before half-time with a sumptuously directed header from 15 yards. From another majestic ball over the top of Spain’s straying back line from Daley Blind, Arjen Robben, thanks to a wondrous first touch, put the Dutch in front shortly after the interval. Having conceded two goals in a major tournament for the first time since their dominance of the international arena began in 2008, Spain were rattled. They were soon to concede two more as defeat turned to ignominy and Dutch joy turned to glee.
Casillas came and failed to get to a free-kick, although had a strong claim for a free-kick for Van Persie’s challenge, before Stefan de Vrij looked the most surprised man on the pitch to have bundled in his first goal for his country. Things then went from bad to worse for Spain’s goalkeeper, who has remained No.1 for his country, despite not having been so for his club for 18 months. Van Persie caught him in possession and poked the ball into the empty net to seal the win with 18 minutes remaining. That still proved enough time for the brilliant Robben to run clear and fire the ball into the net for his second and the Netherlands’ fifth.
The result will be seen as the most poignant vindication for the changes the Netherlands have made since South Africa, for Spain as confirmation that coach Vicente del Bosque’s faith in certain players was misjudged.
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The 2010 final had been characterized by Dutch negativity and over-physicality that prompted a reexamination of the country’s whole soccer philosophy. Van Gaal, an experienced, ardent adherer to the traditional Dutch school was turned to, with the squad and strategy immediately overhauled. Yet before the tournament it appeared a team still in transition. The evidence of the opening half backed that up.
Van Gaal’s strategy to push his team up and attempt to engage Spain’s pass-masters high up in midfield made for an entertaining game. It also left the Dutch vulnerable in behind. Spain’s idea was to try and expose that weakness with Diego Costa, but the Brazilian-born striker, whose end to a brilliant season with Atletico Madrid had been blighted by injuries, didn’t look fit and looked an ill-fit in this Spanish side.
Despite lacking sharpness, it was Costa’s run that led to a soft but probably just penalty when going over De Vrij’s trailing leg. Alonso dispatched it and the Netherlands’ struggling back three looked ripe to concede a second. David Silva was played into a massive hole in the Dutch backline but his cute finish was repelled by inexperienced Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen. It proved the game’s turning point.
The Dutch had the physicality to hurry their opponents and disrupt their usual metronomic passing rhythm, while Spain were unable to close down the Netherlands in the same way. With a high back line and an uncertain, rusty goalkeeper behind them, it would prove fatal. Van Gaal’s side had just the system to expose it.
Ajax’s Blind showed his quality on the ball by taking advantage of the time afforded him with a peach of a ball over the top that saw Van Persie run in behind Sergio Ramos and head brilliantly over a stranded Casillas.
A repeat followed eight minutes after the interval. Again from the left flank, Blind picked out a runner, this time Robben. His ingenuity got him in behind Gerard Pique, his brilliant control allowed him to take it down first time, before turning back onto his favored left foot and firing a shot that beat Casillas, with the aid of a slight deflection off of Ramos. Staring through the middle, the Bayern Munich man was at the heart of a similarly emphatic result and clash of styles to the one that saw his club beat the tiki-taka of Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals in 2013. The goal was also a manner of personal atonement after Robben had missed a similar chance when the 2010 final still stood goalless.
Spain now had no answer as the Netherlands tore at their defense at will. Van Persie soon smashed the crossbar with a fierce effort on his weaker right foot but it would not be long before the Dutch lead was extended. Van Persie appeared to lead with his arm as he jumped with Casillas to try and meet Wesley Sneijder’s wicked free-kick, but the lack of authority Casillas asserts over his area had been shown up once more. De Vrij knew little about it when he turned the ball in from close range, but the roar from the thousands in orange in the crowd meant he soon did.
Silva had a goal ruled out for offside, but it was now a matter of how many goals the Dutch would rack up. Goal number four came courtesy of a desperately heavy touch from Casillas that allowed Van Persie to knick in and get his second. The final word was fittingly left for arguably the Netherlands’ key figure. The Dutch again broke to catch out a shell-shocked Spain, with Robben charging through, turning back inside Ramos and Casillas, composing himself and blasting into the net. There were chances for more, while substitute Fernando Torres fluffed an opening at the other end. But the script had been written and the champions humbled..
The result will doubtless be a major boost for a Dutch side that is largely inexperienced outside of the big three of Robben Sneijder and Van Persie. It would, though, be dangerous to read too much into just one result. The same applies to Spain. Their glorious era has not necessarily ended, but they will have to produce an immediate response against a dangerous Chile side if their World Cup defense is not to be over at the first hurdle.