The Netherlands needed a couple of lucky bounces to break down Denmark’s sturdy defense for a 2-0 win Monday despite struggling to live up to its billing as one of the most dangerous attacking teams at the World Cup.
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The Dutch took the lead through a fluke own goal in the 46th when Denmark defender Simon Poulsen headed a ball off the back of teammate Daniel Agger and into the net, when trying to clear a cross from Robin van Persie.
Dirk Kuyt doubled the lead in the 85th when he tapped in a rebound off the post from close range.
Denmark had frustrated the Dutch until the own goal with a compact midfield, and the Netherlands never came close to the free-flowing, high-scoring type of play their fans have become accustomed to – despite several other chances.
"We wanted to play beautiful football but we lost the ball," Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk said. "(But) from time to time you could see how good we can be."
They still had to rely on a bit of luck, as Van Persie beat an onrushing Thomas Sorensen to a long through ball down the left flank before squaring up to send a cross into the area. Poulsen had plenty of time and space to clear the ball, but his off-balance header bounced off Agger’s back before trickling into the net.
"That was like a bucket of cold water over our heads," Denmark coach Morten Olsen said. "Simon Poulsen was one of our better players but he was unlucky. It’s one of those things that happens in football."
Poulsen said he saw the ball too late, and that it "practically hit me in the face."
"I was just thinking, this can’t be happening," Poulsen said.
After wasting a number of chances to double the lead, substitute Eljero Elia broke clear into the area and rolled his shot past Sorensen and against the post. But the ball bounced straight out toward Kuyt, who beat his marker to tap the rebound into an empty net.
"I don’t think we played that well in the first half, but in the second we really deserved to win," Netherlands playmaker Wesley Sneijder said. "The Danes in the first half did an excellent job, because they studied us very thoroughly."
Both coaches sprung a surprise in their lineups with Van Marwijk putting Arjen Robben on the bench after previously ruling him out of the game because of a hamstring problem, while Olsen started Arsenal forward Nicklas Bendtner after saying he would almost certainly miss the game with a groin problem.
But with the 1-0 lead to protect, Van Marwijk never looked likely to risk Robben’s fitness by putting him on, as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury.
"We won, 2-0, so there you go. You can hardly say that you missed him," Van Marwijk said. "Arjen is an exceptional player who on his own can make a difference. … But we’ve got a couple of them. And I’m really pleased that we have them on board."
Bendtner was taken off in the 62nd. Olsen said the forward "wasn’t supposed to play," but that a late injury to Jon Dahl Tomasson forced him to change his mind.
"We had to take some chances," Olsen said. "But we couldn’t let Bendtner play more than one hour. We still have two important games."
Bendtner played as a lone striker up front as Denmark employed a five-man midfield to stop the Netherlands’ trademark quick passing game.
Those tactics worked well in the first half, as the Dutch struggled to thread the ball through the midfield. Instead it was Denmark that created the best scoring chances on counter attacks. Dennis Rommedahl’s cross from the right wing found Bendtner unmarked in the area in the 27th, but the Arsenal forward headed wide from six meters (yards).
Bendtner then sent Thomas Kahlenberg clear into the left side of the area in the 37th, but his shot was pushed out to a corner by Maarten Stekelenburg.
The Dutch continued to press forward after the own goal but struggled to create clear chances.
Van Persie had a chance to double the lead in the 52nd after being sent clear into the area by Kuyt but Sorensen rushed out and got a hand on the ball.
The Arsenal striker then set up Rafael van der Vaart with a cross into the area in the 59th, but his nifty volley produced a two-handed save from Sorensen.
Van Persie then met Sneijder’s corner in the 74th, but his header bounced wide.
Netherlands: Maarten Stekelenburg; Gregory van der Wiel, John Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Mark van Bommel, Dirk Kuyt, Nigel de Jong (Demy de Zeeuw, 88), Robin van Persie (Ibrahim Afellay, 77), Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart (Eljero Elia, 67).
Denmark: Thomas Sorensen, Christian Poulsen, Simon Kjaer, Daniel Agger, Lars Jacobsen, Martin Jorgensen, Nicklas Bendtner (Mikkel Beckmann, 62), Thomas Kahlenberg (Christian Eriksen, 73), Simon Poulson, Dennis Rommedahl, Thomas Enevoldsen (Jesper Gronkjaer, 56).