Holland advanced to the finals of the World Cup today with a 3-2 victory over plucky Uruguay. For the Dutch, this will be their first appearnace in the finals since the back-to-back appearances of 1974 and 1978.
On those occasions, Holland lost 2-1 to West Germany (in Munich) and 3-1 in extra time to Argentina (in Buenos Aires). Considering the closeness of the two matches and the quality of those Dutch teams, you can make a good case that, had these matches been played in a neutral country, Holland would have at least one World Cup title to its name.
Today’s match saw Uruguay bottle up Holland in the first half, which ended 1-1. But Holland dominated the second half, taking a 3-1 lead, and then surviving a late goal, and a last-ditch quest for another, by Uruguay.
The match turned throughout on tactical decisions by the coaches. Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez shrewdly decided to replace suspended striker Luis Suarez (he of the match-saving hand-ball that broke African hearts) with an extra midfielder. This gave Uruguay a three-man central midfield. Holland replaced suspended defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong with the even more defensive Demy De Zeeuw.
Faced with a packed midfield, and saddled with De Zeeuw, the Dutch were unable consistently to penetrate the Uruguay defense or to get their vaunted passing game going. They did score, on a 40-yard wonder strike by defender Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, but Uruguay dominated the later stages of the first half and equalized through Diego Forlan.
At half time, Holland’s manager Bert van Marwijk made the move that won the match, bringing on Rafael Van der Vaart for de Zeeuw. Van der Vaart had been ineffective early in the tournament filling in for Arjen Robben on the flank. Like Robben, he tends to drift into the middle; unlike Robben, he doesn’t beat good defenders off the dribble. But his insertion into central midfield, with Robben playing to his outside, gave Holland the extra passer necessary to cope with Uruguay’s three-man central midfield.
The Dutch promptly took over the match and, after a good spell of pressure, scored two goals in three minutes, though the first should have disallowed due to a fractional off-sides. Holland was now rampant and could have added one or two more.
Van Marwijk blundered late in the match, however. Ahead 3-1, he declined to bring on defense-minded substitutes. Indeed, he made no second-half substitution other than Van der Vaart until the 90th minute, when he replaced Robben with the equally attack-minded Elia.
With time running out, Uruguay equalized and then assaulted the Dutch goal throughout “injury time.” But the equalizer didn’t come.
In the finals on Sunday, Holland will likely be the underdog against Spain or Germany, due to a suspect defense which gave up two goals today to a mediocre attacking team that was missing its second best scoring threat. But neither Spain nor Germany will relish coping with a suddenly unified Dutch team and its at-times brilliant attack.
UPDATE: The other coaching decision that’s getting attention is the replacement of Diego Forlan, Uruguay’s only superstar and scorer of most of its goals, with six minutes of regular time left. Some saw the move as throwing in the towel and giving Forlan a chance for an ovation.
I think that’s an implausible view. Forlan seemed out of gas and his coach says he was injured.
The removal of Forlan actually coincided with Uruguay’s revival, though I suspect his coach would have liked to re-insert him for the final, frantic three minutes. But that’s one of the great things about soccer; once you’re out, you’re out for good.
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