Round of 16: He who dares, wins
It is a brave man who takes off Robin Van Persie when you’re a goal down in a World Cup knock out game.
But then again, Louis van Gaal is pretty ballsy.
The Dutch manager has not always had the full backing of his country’s supporters, but time and time again at this World Cup he has shown he knows how to win, and let’s be honest – everyone loves a winner.
Unfortunately for Mexico, the latest win came at El Tri’s expense in remarkable circumstances.
Whether or not Arjen Robben dived or not – I think he did – there’s no doubting that the intensity with which Holland chased the game in the dying stages in searing heat was impressive.
Wesley Sneijder chanced his arm from distance on a number of occasions until the perfect opportunity arose and when it presented itself he showed no mercy in lashing the ball beyond the once-more impressive Guillermo Ochoa.
Not satisfied with just forcing the game into extra-time, Holland pushed and pushed and pushed, and when Rafael Marquez stuck a leg out after Robben had teased the ball past the experienced Mexican defender, there was only going to be one outcome.
Was there contact? Definitely.
Was it a dive? Absolutely.
No, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Football, believe it or not, is actually a contact sport, and while contact is a prerequisite for a foul, it is not the only criteria and it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest the contact between the two was enough to send Robben sprawling.
If nothing else, though, the decision was certainly consistent with many which have preceded it this tournament and perhaps Marquez should know better than to leave a leg out in the box.
If the penalty itself was fortunate, the tactical ploy which allowed Robben to get behind the Mexican defence again and again was not.
Moving from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 with Robben operating in a wider role made him harder to contain and spread Mexico’s back three and creating gaps he could easily penetrate.
Having won the penalty, Klaas Jan Huntelaar stepped up and – despite playing only his first World Cup minutes – dispatched the penalty with consummate ease.
Huntelaar’s role in setting up Sneijder for Holland’s should also be noted.
Whether accidental or not, it was his added height and presence in the box that allowed him to nod back Robben’s corner into the path of Sneijder.
If those two contributions define his World Cup, he’ll be well remembered for it, just as van Gaal will be for introducing him into the game at the expense of Van Persie with 14 minutes still to play.
It was a bold move – arguably one prompted by the fact van Gaal had nothing to lose already being a goal down – and one which paid off richly.
It has arguably been the story of the World Cup thus far.
The team which scores first, with so much to lose, fails to respond to the tactical changes of the team chasing the game, which has much less to lose, and is ultimately undone.
The result was unjust on Mexico, which will join Chile in wondering how on Earth it did not capitalise on so much dominance over the 90 minutes, but this has not been a World Cup for teams which do not take their opportunities.