Netherlands staged a stunning late comeback to dash Mexico’s dreams of a quarterfinal with a 2-1 victory in Fortaleza.
El Tri looked on course for the final eight for the first time on foreign soil after Giovani dos Santos opened the scoring with a spectacular finish three minutes after the interval. It proved no less than Mexico deserved until that point, but Netherlands improved after conceding and finally snatched its reward two minutes from time when Wesley Sneijder punished Mexico for its shoddy set piece defending with a rasping first-time finish.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar completed the Dutch comeback in second-half stoppage time after Rafael Márquez hauled down Arjen Robben as he cut back inside the penalty area. Second-half substitute Huntelaar made no mistake to send the Dutch through to the quarterfinals to face the winner of Costa Rica vs. Greece.
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”You don’t know when your chance will come, but it was today, and so you grab it with both hands,” said Huntelaar, who made his first appearance at this year’s World Cup. ”And it was fantastic.”
The shocking ending will leave Mexico wondering what might have been after it controlled the opening hour of the game. Dos Santos’ opener provided a platform for them to go on and win it, but their inability to push out in the late stages or defend set pieces instead consigned them to a sixth consecutive defeat in the Round of 16 and a disappointing conclusion to this promising run. The Netherlands’ late winner was still a talking point after the match for Mexico’s manager Miguel Herrera.
”Today it was the man with the whistle who eliminated us from the World Cup,” a deflated Herrera said after the match. ”If a referee invents a penalty, you’re out of the World Cup. I hope they have a look at what happened and that this gentleman goes home just like we are.”
Mexico opened brightly in its bid to avoid such a heartbreaking fate. El Tri stayed compact from back to front to limit the amount of time ceded to Netherlands in midfield and set the line intelligently to restrict the opportunities for Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie to run in behind the line.
Netherlands coped with the early exit of Nigel de Jong by moving Daley Blind into midfield, but the Dutch struggled to conjure any ideas or any rhythm despite enjoying the majority of the possession.
The balance of play allowed Mexico to break quickly at times and present problems by applying pressure directly. Hector Herrera fired just wide of the far post after 17 minutes after a dos Santos pullback and an Oribe Peralta square pass, while Carlos Salcido tested the nervous Jasper Cillessen with his effort from distance.
Van Persie found a brief sight of goal shortly before the half-hour, but he skewed wide after stretching to corral the overhit ball over the top. It proved the last meaningful action before the two teams took their proscribed water break — designed to allow all of the players to hydrate given the oppressive conditions in Fortaleza — at the behest of FIFA and the Brazilian court system.
Netherlands nearly won a penalty on the stroke of halftime after Paul Aguilar conceded possession and prompted a Dutch break. Van Persie played Robben behind the line. Robben cut inside, but he found his run halted by Rafa Márquez. The referee instead waved away the shouts and drew the half to a close shortly thereafter.
Dos Santos finally delivered Mexico the foothold it deserved three minutes after play resumed with a superbly taken opener. He collected Ron Vlaar’s poor clearing header with chest and played the ball out ahead to create a yard of space at the edge of the penalty arc. He then contorted his body deftly and fired back across his body to nestle his shot inside the neat post to hand El Tri a warranted lead.
The opener altered the dynamic of the game with Netherlands driving forward with more intent and Mexico willing to sit back and soak up pressure. It proved a dangerous gambit indeed for El Tri as its initiative disappeared and the Dutch finally found a way into the game.
Ochoa produced a stunning save just before the hour to protect the Mexican lead. Mexico once again found its defending on set pieces wanting as Stefan de Vrij dashed free and volleyed toward goal, but Ochoa managed to deflect the effort off his far post to maintain the lead.
Sneijder continued to present some challenge for the Mexican defense from the run of play, but his eventual equalizer resulted from yet another instance of poor set piece after 88 minutes. The delivery toward the back post created all sorts of problems for the Mexican defense and permitted the Dutch to nod back invitingly toward the top of the penalty area. Sneijder made a late, untracked run into the space and thumped his first-effort past everyone to restore parity.
It should have probably carried the match into extra time, but Robben’s clever work inside the penalty area finally produced the spot kick he sought all day. Robben cut back from along the byline and prompted Márquez to stab him down as he attempted to drift back to the middle. The referee pointed to spot without hesitation to allow Huntelaar to step up and smash home the winner to save the Dutch and send the Mexicans spiraling to another Round of 16 exit.
”Yes, we escaped,” van Gaal said. ”But we showed that we could create more chances with 4-3-3, and the players handled this shift very well.”