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Dublin: 1°C Friday 23 April 2021
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Five-goal Dutch overwhelm ailing Spanish

Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben tore apart Vicente del Bosque’s hapless side.

Netherlands' Nigel de Jong (left) and Daryl Janmaat celebrate after the game.
Netherlands' Nigel de Jong (left) and Daryl Janmaat celebrate after the game.

Spain 1

The Netherlands 5

ALL GOOD THINGS must come to an end and it seems a rampant Netherlands tonight called time on the red reign of Las Roja. This was not a frustrating 1-0 opening round defeat to Switzerland, like the one Spain suffered four years ago before recovering to lift the World Cup, this was a brutal changing of the guard.

The era of possession-based “tiki-taka” football is dead. It has been dead at club level for two years, but on a sticky, humid afternoon in Salvador, Louis Van Gaal’s young Dutch team counter-attacked Spain’s system into international extinction.

As sad as it was to see greats such as Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas fade before our eyes, it was impossible not to be heartened watching Netherlands’ vicious brand of football prosper. Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben, with two goals each, look like club leaders who are ready to go global in Brazil.

Robben’s Bayern Munich, a team that Van Gaal laid the foundations for (as he did their antithesis Barcelona), showed the way in the 2013 Champions League final and his former club Real Madrid followed this year. The dominance of Barcelona has been broken in Spain by the counter-attacking efficiency of Real and Atletico Madrid.

Now Vicente del Bosque’s team, who have won their last three international tournaments, look as instantly, bizarrely, outdated as the Catalan club from whom they drew their inspiration.

It started promisingly, when one newcomer Diego Costa earned a penalty with a judiciously placed trailing leg, which was duly converted by veteran Alonso.

At that stage, with Spain dominating possession as always, few could foresee a side who conceded two goals in winning the title four years ago leaking five goals. In fact, they should have been 2-0 up on 42 minutes when David Silva, criminally neglected by Daryl Janmaat, was sent through by the irrepressible Andres Iniesta, but the Manchester City man’s chipped effort was clawed away for a corner by Jasper Cillessen.

Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2014 - Group B - Spain v Netherlands - Arena Fonte Nova Source: EMPICS Sport

(Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas looks dejected after Netherlands’ Robin van Persie scores their fourth goal)

So far, so Spain, but then the wheels came off as Van Persie took flight. Daley Blind had been combining well with Robben on the right flank and it was his crossfield ball that found Van Persie, played onside by the sleepy Gerard Pique, and the Manchester United striker took flight to send a diving header looping over the stranded Casillas.

Game on, but not in the way anyone expected. As the rain began to fall at the start of the second half, Iniesta tested Cillessen with a shot that skimmed across the greasy surface. On 52 minutes, Robben put the Netherlands in front — delightfully collecting a Blind pass in mid-air with his trusty left peg, the Bayern man cut inside Pique with his right before shooting past Casillas with the aid of a slight deflection off Sergio Ramos.

Costa’s frustration boiled over quickly and he was lucky to escape without censure for a gentle butt in the direction of Bruno Martins Idi. Wisely, Del Bosque replaced the striker with Fernando Torres soon after.

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Van Persie slammed a right-foot volley off the crossbar before the third and decisive goal came courtesy of the unlikely source of Stefan De Vrij, who bundled the ball over the line after Casillas failed to come out and claim a Sneijder free.

Things were unravelling for the Spain captain, who was booked before handing Van Persie his second goal on a plate, horribly miscontrolling a Jordi Alba backpass. It went from bad to worse when Robben left the poor Pique for dead, left Casillas stranded with a neat turn before firing the ball into an unguarded net.

There could have been more goals for the Dutch, but a combination of profligacy and a couple of fine Casillas saves spared them any further indignity. Until Torres hesitated with an open goal begging for him to shoot.

As expected, Van Gaal set his team up with a five-man defence in the hope of repelling the reigning world champions and number one ranked team. Their respective formations gave no hint of their qualifying campaigns — the Netherlands were second top scorers in Europe behind Germany with 34 goals, while Spain managed just 14, albeit in a more difficult group featuring one team less.

Del Bosque’s team selection, after six years at the helm of one of the most talented groups of players ever assembled, was more predictable. The only slight surprise the inclusion of Chelsea full-back Cesar Azpilicueta ahead of Atletico Madrid’s Juanfran. On the other flank, Jordi Alba was playing through the pain of a toothache.

Up front Diego Costa, playing less than 300 kilometres from the town of his birth Lagarto, was selected ahead of David Villa, who scored two goals in Spain’s final warm-up game against Costa Rica.

Both teams in their alternative strips — Spain in all white, the Netherlands dark blue — Spain kicked off, playing into the southern end of the Arena Fonte Nova, with its temporary seating.

From the get-go, Van Gaal’s front five worked tirelessly to press the Spanish but Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso were immediately into their groove, with Silva providing a menacing link to Costa, who was drawing a lot of abuse from the Brazilian contingent in the crowd, before he had even earned Spain’s penalty.

Despite Spain’s predictable domination of possession early on, it was the Dutch who had the opening chance — Arjen Robben pounced on an error by Alba to send Wesley Sneijder through on goal in the eighth minute, but the Galatasaray man’s tame shot straight at Iker Casillas was as easily saved as Robben’s similar miss in the final four years ago.
Other than an effort from distance by the influential Iniesta, Spain took time to threaten the Dutch goal — Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar did brilliantly to block a left footed effort from Costa, who has turned leading the line alone into a muscular art form.

The Atletico man’s role as Panto villain in chief was assumed briefly by Netherlands enforcer Nigel De Jong, who was penalised for a barging block on Sergio Busquets, of which the Barcelona midfielder undoubtedly made a meal. It was no kung-fu kick to the chest.

The Netherlands could have taken an unlikely lead had full-back Daryl Janmaat had the courage to shoot following a cross from his increasingly influential fellow full-back, Daley Blind. However, with Silva and Iniesta combining wonderfully and Costa forging opportunities, even if his finishing lacked refinement, a Spanish goal was on the cards.

When it came it arrived with controversy. Costa falling theatrically after De Vrij foolishly attempted a sliding tackle. However the drama was only beginning, and the second act was epoch-changing.

Next for the punch drunk champs is Chile in the Maracana. It looks likely to be their only trip to the final venue.

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Mikey Stafford

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