Sunday in Fortaleza, Brazil, Holland scored two goals in the last seven minutes of regulation time to beat their Mexican opponents 2-1 and advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
The defeat was heartbreaking for the Mexican team who has played some of the best football of the tournament and did so again today. Unfortunately, Mexican Coach Miguel Herrera, who had so far brilliantly managed a rebuilt team, made some critically inept substitutions that disrupted his team’s rhythm of play at just the time they needed to turn game managers simply by continuing to do what had worked. The change of personnel and tactics allowed the Dutch more room to maneuver and they took to it with relish, and skill, and another touch of Louis van Gaal magic, culminating in a historic turnaround.
The first half ended scoreless but not for lack of Mexican attempts which numerous despite having the lesser possession (45%-55%). Memo Ochoa, the Mexican goalkeeper, had some outstanding saves to keep the Dutch at bay on their patented but infrequent counters. But in the end it was the Dutch who tried and succeeded in managing another victory.
The entire first half was a carbon copy of the game with Chile only in this case managing the heat was an integral part of the strategy as the ninety degree weather was more familiar to the Mexicans. The Dutch could easily argue that Arjen Robben’s constant pursuit of a penalty should have been rewarded when it (or they) actually occurred and was (were) missed by the referee. Nevertheless the Americas representative outplayed the Europeans for the entire first half and should have converted at least once.
The Mexicans finally cashed in on their superior play at the 48th minute when Giovanni dos Santos scored on a pretty left-footed run and shoot from outside the box which left Dutch keeper, Jasper Cillessen, sprawled and well away from the ball as it curled up in the nets.
But one had the feeling that van Gaal was not surprised or unprepared for his opposition to pull ahead. He had already needed to substitute for Nigel de Jong at the 9th minute when the combative midfielder had to leave with an injury. So his options were few. But the water breaks were also helping as they provided players a chance to break the rhythm if it did not benefit them, and begin anew, and coaches a chance to tinker with strategy. Both things could be seen taking place.
Within nine minutes of the Mexican goal in came regular half-time spark plug Memphis Depay, the expected move. But unexpected was moving the tall, rangy winger, Dirk Kuyt at right back. This move somehow seemed thought through but one also felt the Dutch coach was adding new notes to the libretto as the situation dictated. Then, he was assisted by his opposing coach.
It almost seemed as if when Depay came in (at the 59th) and Ochoa was forced to make a point blank save, Herrera felt the need to counter the substitution and the opportunity created with a change of his own. Certainly his team was ahead by playing the way they were, there was no need for a substitution, and Holland had created opportunities before, no need to panic. But dos Santos, who had been giving the Dutch defense work to do, was pulled at the 62nd minute.
At the 76th minute van Gaal made his third and last substitution, perhaps with as much a look forward to a draw and extra time, as for a brand new strategy that could be seen emerging in the play where Ochoa pulled off the big save. Robin van Persie was taken out and in came Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The strategy seemed born of an observation that on crosses into the box, the shorter Mexican defenders packed the middle of the box, but left the outer perimeter of the box unprotected. A few Dutch plays that had the ball crossed in and pushed out by Mexican defenders resulted in dangerous plays for the Netherlands and seemed to presage what was coming.
Then, at the 88th minute, a cross into the box found the 6’1” Huntelaar heading back, away from the goal, and toward Wesley Sneijder who was open for a thundering blast from short range, just on the ridge of the box, for the equalizer.
The shock value of the late goal was great. Mexico reacted well, but the momentum was all Holland’s by then. Finally, it took another Robben burst into the box to settle the match. He eluded Rafa Marquez twice, each time with the defender getting closer to fouling the striker, and each bringing a stutter step by Robben as if baiting the Mexican captain. Unfortunately for Marquez, Robben’s ruse paid off and the striker was tripped up, it seemed, for the penalty and yellow card at the 94th minute.
So van Gaal got to put another feather in his cap as the substitute who had assisted on the tying goal stepped up to take and score the winning one. Van Gaal 2, Mexico and Chile nothing.