The Netherlands earned sweet revenge on Spain on Friday at the Fonte Nova in Salvador, hammering Spain 5-1 to put an emphatic coda on their loss in the 2010 World Cup finals.
Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben both scored twice, and Stefan de Vrij added one to pace the Netherlands after an early and controversial penalty had staked Spain an early lead. And believe it or not, the Dutch could have had a few more. It was the heaviest loss ever suffered by a reigning champion, and it leaves Spain staring at an early exit. Spain hadn’t lost in a Cup match in such a shambolic fashion since 1950 — fittingly enough, that was against hosts Brazil.
This was the first group stage meeting between the previous World Cup’s finalists in history, a seemingly dry fact belied by the rancor of that game. Then, Spain needed extra time to down a Dutch side that should have been reduced to ten men after Nigel de Jong infamously delivered a karate kick to Xabi Alonso’s midsection in Johannesburg, South Africa. That was a dirty show from Holland, and no one had forgot it; the question coming in was whether or not they could overcome that bitter history.
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Indeed, they could.
”We trained that way. And this is definitely down to him,” the Manchester United striker said of the coach who will take over at his club next season. ”If you see how he prepared us, and how he predicted the game would go, and you see how it went – unbelievable.”
Van Gaal, in turn, highlighted his forwards’ performances.
”With strikers like Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder behind them, things like this can happen,” the coach said.
Holland played an unusual five-man back line today that deployed three in front of keeper Jasper Cillessen and used wingbacks to clog the midfield. It forced Spain into playing longer balls over top — frequently with native Brazilian Diego Costa as the end target — but it also revealed the limitations of both sides. That Dutch trio looked callow; Spain at times looked unable to influence matters at all. But as for Costa, booed every time he got near the ball by a Salvador crowd that had not forgotten where he grew up, he was good enough to win Spain’s opening goal.
On the 15th minute, Costa was toppled by Stefan de Vrij in the box, and ref Nicola Rizzoli immediately pointed to the spot. On first glance it looked a stonewall call, but replays introduced significant doubt; Costa seemed to wait for the contact and left his leg back for the defender to take out. To be fair to Rizzoli, it was nowhere close to as controversial a call as many we’ve seen so far in this young World Cup, and the buildup for it was sublime, with David Silva and Xavi combining to push the ball through a static back trio. Xabi Alonso converted this one, calmly slotting home low and hard past Cillessen.
That was all the Spanish were able to do, as the game turned on a critical save. For Spain nearly doubled their lead when Andres Iniesta found David Silva with three minutes to go in the half. Cillessen smartly stood him up to palm the lob around his post. The play revealed yet more weakness in the Dutch defense — they were very vulnerable to diagonal balls tracking from the center to the flanks — but the save proved providential.
Holland swiftly marched down the field, Daley Blind fired in a cross from the left — and Robin van Persie scored the goal of the Cup so far.
Launching himself and a thousand "Flying Dutchman" jokes at the same time, van Persie arched his back and neck at the edge of the area to head the ball past a stunned Iker Casillas, rooted on his line. It was audacious, it was unbelievable, and it was in the back of the net. Van Persie became the first Dutchman to score in three World Cups with the goal — and earned himself a spot in highlight reels for years to come.
When Robben netted, sending the orange-clad fans into paroxysm, it was no more than they deserved. Spain’s central pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos had become increasingly disconnected, and Robben, on the slalom, brilliantly settled a long ball to turn and fire through them to ruffle the net. It was a fine bit of skill, and it effectively killed the game.
And as good as Cillessen had been for Holland, Casillas was as poor for Spain. Dropped as the starter at his club Real Madrid by Carlo Ancelotti, he was to blame on the next two Dutch goals.
First, Casillas flapped at a routine ball under normal pressure from van Persie. De Vrij was in the right place at the right time — in this case, almost over the endline at the far post — and able to touch the ball into an unguarded net. Casillas fumed, claiming a foul — but in reality, he’d made a hash of it.
There was no disguising who was at fault on van Persie’s second: Casillas tried to clear the ball and made an even worse mess of the play, gifting the fleet van Persie with an open net. As the Manchester United man wheeled away towards his bench, arms in the air, Casillas could only gaze at the ground.
Robben added the fifth when he danced through the back line, leaving both Ramos and Casillas for dead, to selfishly lash the ball home with his left foot. It was a bit of swagger that felt totally justified, and Robben wagged his tongue at both the crowd and his opponents.
The result is a damaging one for Spain, and an eerie echo of their 2010 campaign to boot. There, they lost the opener to Switzerland — and went on to become the first side to raise the Cup after losing the opener. But Spain don’t have it easy: they face a very threatening Chilean at the Maracana Stadium on Wednesday while Holland have what should be an easy match in Port Alegre earlier that same day against Australia.
As it stands now, the Oranj are the ones to beat. ”We don’t have anything yet. We’ve made a pretty start,” van Gaal said. ”If you beat Australia, then you’ve made a good start.”
And the fiery Reds may have finally flamed out.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.