Reign of Spain nipped in the bud by breathless Netherlands
“We’ve had this philosophy now for a number of years and I think it would be a mistake to change it,” said Spain’s metronome Xavi. These words were uttered before they took on the Netherlands in a repeat of the 2010 World Cup final in their opening game in Brazil. Spain lost 5-1, and it could have easily been more.
“We know that we’re going to win or to die with this style of play,” he added. Spain died on their feet as tiki-taka took a backseat to the blistering pace of total football with a Louis van Gaal tactical twist.
They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but there was nothing callous about a Dutch demolition of the reigning world champions. Amid a tropical torrent that swamped Salvador, Arjen Robben orchestrated a searing second half display, with two stunning solo strikes supplementing another memorable aerial effort from Robin van Persie, who also bagged a brace and cracked the crossbar.
Van Gaal’s blend of youth in defence and experience in attack was portrayed a major gamble, one that only looked more bold when Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart were lost from Netherlands ranks before the tournament. That faith has paid off.
Let there be no bones about it, there was nothing naïve about a Dutch defence marshalled by Aston Villa skipper Ron Vlaar. Stefan de Vrij atoned for conceding a penalty midway through the first half, as he later nodded in a Wesley Sneijder free kick amongst the glut of goals from Robben, who could’ve had a hat-trick, and Van Persie.
Daley Blind, underrated at this level because of his status as an Ajax utility man, put in an all-action performance at left wing back. Two assists, coupled with a sensational last ditch tackle on Spain substitute Fernando Torres, denying the Chelsea frontman an open goal and a consolation, must make commentators revise their opinion of him.
As brave and effective as Netherlands tactics – a back three, four across midfield and free roles for Robben and Sneijder behind Van Persie – were, unrecognisable frailties became brutally apparent in Vicente del Bosque’s boys.
Spain’s success has been built on prizing possession above all else, but for too long were they shown too much respect. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have rarely had players go straight at them, either for club or country, like they did here. Robben ran them ragged.
Worse still, Del Bosque will be under a tumult of pressure to drop national skipper Iker Casillas for David de Gea. The Real Madrid goalie’s lack of weekly match action – he is a La Liga substitute behind Diego Lopez, although remains the cup keeper at the Bernabeu and played in the Champions League final in May – was starkly apparent here.
First flapping at the Sneijder set piece (one of two assists) which De Vrij nodded in from point blank range at the back post for 3-1, Casillas was rattled and booked for protesting. A lackadaisical attitude to a routine back-pass then spelled the likely death knell for his international career. Van Persie won’t have had an easier goal in his career.
Winning a penalty which was converted by Xabi Alonso apart, Brazilian-born Spain striker Diego Costa’s only other noteworthy contribution was to lock heads with Bruno Martins-Indi. Like Neymar, he escaped severe punishment for conduct which, to the letter of the law, is a sending off offence.
That indiscretion will be swept under the carpet, though, as ‘La Roja Furia’ got torn apart by a tide of proven talent in the Dutch attack and exuberant defending. Spain’s struggles here see their odds with Coral lengthened to 8/1 to regroup and somehow retain their global crown. It’s now 12/1 they top Group B now.
In contrast, the Netherlands, running as their nickname suggests like Clockwork, have had their price on a World Cup win more than halved from 33/1 to 12/1. Van Gaal has clearly adapted to survive and thrived, but Del Bosque saw the walls of all he had built in six years torn down before him.