Tuesday night was supposed to be a cakewalk to the World Cup final for the Netherlands, an easy semifinal victory for the Dutch against an undermanned and seemingly overmatched Uruguay team.
Article continues below ...
The South Americans had no interest in playing the role of patsy though, choosing instead to challenge the Netherlands in a way few opponents have been able to.
Despite missing several key players, Uruguay pushed, prodded and tested the ‘Oranje’, and as much as Uruguay’s noble effort conspired to knock off the Dutch, it ultimately motivated the favorites to flash the form that has led them to a perfect run through this 2010 World Cup.
It took a while, almost two thirds of the match to be exact, but the Dutch finally began to move the ball and create and find the gaps in a resolute Uruguay defense, ultimately breaking through with a pair of second-half goals to put the match out of reach.
The Uruguayans put the final result in some doubt late on when Maximiliano Pereira converted a quickly-taken corner in the second minute of stoppage time to make the score 3-2, setting off a frantic few minutes, but the South Americans just didn’t have any more magic left.
The Netherlands started the match patiently, knocking the ball around and probing an Uruguay defense that was missing starters Diego Lugano and Jorge Fucile, but what the Dutch found was an opponent eager to push the action much more than would have been expected. Uruguay fought back early, moving the ball well and enjoying the better of the early play before van Brockhorst blasted a 30-foot shot that pinged off the inside of the top of the far post, leaving Fernando Muslera helpless to stop it.
And just like that, the Dutch had a goal to play with, but aside from an aggressive few minutes, the favorites failed to capitalize. Instead, it was Uruguay forcing the issue and testing the Dutch defense. The only problem was Uruguay’s lineup just didn’t have the punch to really test the Netherlands.
For those who felt Luis Suarez didn’t receive punishment enough for his handball against Ghana, you needed to only look at the stagnant Uruguay attack for the added cost of his split-second match-saving decision. Without Suarez’s dangerous runs and purposeful mobility, Uruguay’s attack featured a brilliant but unsupported Diego Forlan playing alongside a relatively useless Edinson Cavani, who struggled to find any rapport with Forlan at forward.
While the midfield worked well with the defense to limit the Dutch attack and gain a good share of possession, the final third for Uruguay was essentially Forlan standing alone with a ‘Help Wanted’ sign over his shoulder.
In essence, Suarez’s added punishment for his infamous handball was having to watch his team’s attack struggle mightily without him.
Normally a winger, Cavani struggled all night to time his runs and connect with Forlan, while Alvaro Pereira offered very little playing on the left wing in place of Cavani. In short, Suarez’s absence lead to a domino effect that resulted in Uruguay’s attack being limited to hoping Forlan could create something on his own.
Forlan did just that, blasting a long-range shot with enough Jabulani-induced swerve on it to leave Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg flailing in the wrong direction in the 41st minute. Even that surprising equalizer did little to wake up the Dutch team, which played with little urgency in the first half.
The Dutch attack began to show more punch in the second half, due in no small part to the introduction of Rafael van der Vaart for the more defensive-minded Demy De Zeeuw at halftime. Van Der Vaart gave the Netherlands another option in attack and with Uruguay offering no offensive threat in central midfield, Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk did well to throw more at Uruguay’s stingy patchwork defense.
The Dutch attack began turning on the style and the go-ahead goal ultimately came from Sneijder, who sent a low shot that deflected off an Uruguayan defender before heading toward goal. Robin van Persie pulled his leg out of the way in time to allow the deflected shot to beat Muslera just inside the right post, but there were questions about whether the goal should have stood since van Persie was in an offside position and clearly was involved in the play even if he didn’t touch the ball.
Arjen Robben put the match out of reach with his first serious contribution of the night. He had been shackled surprisingly well by Martin Caceres, but found his moment when he floated centrally and streaked in for a perfect header off a Dirk Kuyt cross just three minutes after Sneijder‘s goal. It was a credit to the Bayern Munich winger that he was able to find a crack in the Uruguay defense and finish the chance on an otherwise frustrating night.
Uruguay never did quit, and continued to press forward as Oscar Tabarez threw on fresh attackers. He may have made one too many changes though as his substitution of Forlan in the 84th minute left observers scratching their heads and Forlan exasperated. The move looked even more suspect when Pereira slotted home Uruguay’s second goal in the second minute of stoppage time, giving Uruguay some time to try and find an equalizer, only without its best player.
The South Americans had brief hope, but there would no more miracles. No more inspirational late goals. No life-saving handball. Only the end of what will ultimately be remembered as a gutsy, impressive and inspirational run by a team few outside of Uruguay (and few inside Uruguay) could have envisioned making the semifinal.
Forget about the sanctimonious complaints about the Suarez handball, and the questions about whether Uruguay deserved to be in the semifinal. The team known as ‘La Celeste’ had plenty to be proud of, having delivered some of the best goals and best defensive performances of the tournament. In a World Cup that saw the likes of Brazil and Argentina fall short of expectations, the Uruguayan national team exceeded expectations and did its country and its fans proud.
As for Dutch fans, the ones lucky enough to be in Cape Town were in full party mode on Tuesday night, intent on celebrating while they can because their team’s toughest test of the tournament comes on Sunday in the World Cup final. Whether it is the young and relentless Germans, or skilled and dangerous Spain, the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal should offer much tougher challenges for the Netherlands than Uruguay was able to.
The Dutch will need to play better than they did on Tuesday if they are going to win their first World Cup, but if they can play an entire match like they did in the final 20 minutes against Uruguay, that first world title might just be on its way to the Netherlands.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com.