Mexico frustrated the Netherlands for much of their compelling round of 16 tie on Sunday. The rampant Dutch may have romped through Group B, but they struggled to break down a Mexican side willing to disrupt their rhythm and prevent them from darting into open space.
It took until the late, late stages for the Dutch to devise a way through and seal their place in the quarterfinals with a 2-1 victory. This edition of the Five Points starts with the Netherlands’ late show in Fortaleza.
Van Gaal weaves second-half magic to coax Netherlands into last eight
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It took the better part of an hour for the Netherlands to find its footing against Mexico. The early injury to Nigel de Jong and the subsequent shift of Daley Blind into de Jong’s holding role removed an enforcer in the middle and a threat on the left at the same time. El Tri pushed its wingbacks high – and particularly Miguel Layún on the left – to restrict the Netherlands’ ability to move freely through midfield. Wesley Sneijder barely impacted the game given the dearth of space available to counter. The lack of service to Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie left them on the periphery of the game.
Mexico’s decision to entrench after Giovani dos Santos’ opener after the interval allowed the Dutch to rectify matters. Louis van Gaal made two astute tactical changes to bolster the efforts as his side chased the game: he transitioned to a back four to remove the spare man in defense and he threw Klaas-Jan Huntelaar into the fray at van Persie’s expense to provide a direct element with a quarter of an hour to play.
The extra man allowed the Dutch to peg Layún and Paul Aguilar into their own half and pile even more pressure on the retreating Mexicans. Huntelaar offered yet another potential option on set pieces and provided a genuine target for all of the service into the penalty area.
All of the tinkering – plus the corresponding uptick in commitment and execution after conceding – eventually led to the late riposte. Huntelaar justified his arrival by heading Robben’s corner back for Sneijder to smash home the equalizer and then tucking away the penalty to win it in second-half stoppage time.
Van Gaal made the right chances to procure the necessary response, but he must figure out a way to stoke more initiative at the outset against Costa Rica on Saturday. Costa Rica will adopt a similar deportment – pressure at the right times, soak up the play at others – and look to limit the Dutch on the counter. This group must find a way to dictate the game more vigorously from the start to ensure a smoother ride and snatch a place in the last four without a similar need for heroics.
Mexico pays heavy price for inviting pressure in the late stages
The back three loomed as a potential weakness for El Tri heading into this tournament. It proved a rather unexpected strength instead: the defense held up nicely because Mexico established its line of confrontation a bit higher and protected its lack of pace by leaving little space in behind.
Mexico once again limited the opportunities behind its three central defenders on Sunday, but its decision to drop its pressure after the hour ultimately cost El Tri dearly. The decision to retreat made some sense – Netherlands toiled in possession for much of the day – yet it also invited too much scrutiny for a team missing the injured Héctor Moreno.
Instead of moving a bit higher to relieve the tension on a brittle three without Moreno (substituted at halftime after suffering a fractured left tibia) or pursuing a goal on the break, Mexico reduced its margin for error. The late developments – including more shoddy set piece marking for Sneijder’s opener and Rafa Márquez’s rash lunge on the endline to allow Robben to win the decisive penalty with an exaggerated tumble after some contact – ultimately showed the error of indulging in such a conservative tack.
The late collapse constituted an unfortunate ending to an impressive tournament for Mexico. Miguel Herrera restored the confidence of his players and stitched together a coherent and engaging side over the past six months. El Tri nearly rode that wave to the last eight for the first time on foreign soil. The run ended because this group deviated from its principles in the last stages, but the disappointing finale should not detract from the good work completed across board during this Brazilian excursion.
Navas once again the hero as Costa Rica books its quarterfinal spot
Costa Rica faced no such choice about whether to hold or push in the second half of its penalty kick victory over Greece after a 1-1 draw between the sides. It needed to close up shop after Oscar Duarte’s second booking in the 66th minute and trust its defense to prevent the Greeks from somehow breaching their rearguard.
Those efforts – a bit more ragged on this occasion even with 11 men in the face of a defiant Greece – nearly reaped the expected dividends in regular time. Costa Rica scrambled and survived as much as it could with its 10 men with Keylor Navas once again the linchpin of those efforts in goal. The entire group repelled modest wave after modest wave until succumbing to a lumped aerial ball, a flick and a finish from Sokratis Papastathopoulos to force extra time.
Navas once again took center stage in the extra period to ensure the late goal did not usher the Ticos out of the competition. He blocked every Greek attempt to snatch the likely winner. He stopped an admittedly awkward five-versus-two break with a save at his near post. He thwarted one penalty kick from Theofanis Gekas to ensure his Ticos would claim a famous place in the last eight.
The penalty kick heroics constituted yet another deserved star turn for perhaps the best goalkeeper in this competition to date. Navas must maintain this sort of defiant form in order to provide the Ticos with the best possible chance of upsetting the Dutch and somehow sneaking into the last four.
Greece operates within itself to nearly snatch a place in the last eight
They may not offer much in the way of entertainment, but the Greeks always extract the very most out of their squad. Other teams with similar talent levels crashed out unceremoniously. This group managed to push Costa Rica to the last and nearly secure the first round of 16 berth in the country’s history.
Credit the astute tactical plan from Fernando Santos for much of the success in this affair. Greece moved the Ticos out of their comfort zone by sitting deeply and then inching forward as the first half came to a close in a bid to find the opener. Their approach flummoxed the Ticos without risking defensive solidity and tempered the threatening wingbacks at the same time. Jose Holebas – the best Greek player on the day by quite some distance – delivered an inviting ball for Dimitrios Salpingidis, but Navas turned away the resulting effort. Bryan Ruiz’s opener and Duarte’s exit ultimately changed the dynamic, but the Greeks can rightfully say they were on top for much of the game.
Familiar attacking limitations ultimately kept Greece from continuing its march. The dearth of ingenuity and variety rose to the fore once again as the Greeks toiled to create chances with the numerical advantage. The lack of sharpness in the final third ultimately cost them dearly as Navas produced saves and the strikers spurned chances.
It is not in this side to chase the game or make it entertaining for the neutrals. But its strengths – defiance, organization and timing – proved more than enough to claim a first berth in the knockout stage and come within a spot kick here or there of reaching the last eight. All in all, this trip to Brazil represents a job exceedingly well done by a side few expected to reach this juncture of the competition.
France must maintain its balance to dispatch Nigeria
There is plenty of promise surrounding France at the moment, but Les Bleus must navigate through Monday’s round of 16 match against Nigeria (12 p.m. ET) carefully. Nigeria boasts a resolute defensive core and troubles teams with its ability to break quickly and vertically out of the back. France must disrupt Nigeria’s attempts to play directly to Emmanuel Emenike if at all possible to remain on solid group. If the French can keep matters tight at the back, then they should find a way through with their constant movement. Look for France to provide Karim Benzema with plenty of supply on the left to slice into the channel and test whether right back Efe Ambrose can rectify his spotty positioning.
Germany must exhibit a similar level of patience in the next match against Algeria (4 p.m. ET) to collect the expected result. Algeria frustrated Belgium for long stretches with a coherent and well drilled shape before ultimately capitulating on the counter in its opening game. Vahid Halilhodzic opened up his side a touch more against Korea Republic and Russia, but he cannot afford an expansive game here. Islam Slimani will look to dart into the channels to expose the Germans’ lack of pace at the back. If Germany can weather those Algerian counterattacks, then it must increase the tempo enough on the ball to find openings in the attacking third.