The Netherlands have one foot in the FIFA World Cup knockout stages after an exciting 3-2 victory over Australia on Wednesday at the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Both teams held and surrendered the lead at least once in a thrilling, end-to-end match that witnessed a leading contender for goal of the tournament from Tim Cahill, who equalised for Australia in the first half moments after Arjen Robben had opened the scoring for the Dutch.
The Socceroos took a shocking 2-1 lead early in the second half through Mile Jedinak's well-taken penalty, but the Netherlands fought back with goals from Robin van Persie and substitute Memphis Depay to take all three points.
As ESPN's Adrian Melville noted, the match provided some of the most exhilarating football in what has already been an engrossing World Cup:
With the win, the Netherlands remained atop Group B with six points and will almost certainly advance to the knockout stages. Their progress will become official if Chile—who also entered the second round of group matches with three points—defeat or draw with Spain later Wednesday.
The Dutch, who had already turned in perhaps the tournament's most impressive performance so far in beating defending champions Spain, 5-1, conclude group play against Chile on Monday in Sao Paulo.
For Australia, the result means almost certain elimination from the tournament, a fate that would be sealed if Chile win or draw against Spain.
But the Socceroos acquitted themselves admirably, pushing the Dutch to the limit for more than an hour and taking a second-half lead before suffering a hard-fought defeat for the second time in as many matches.
Up next for the Aussies is a match against Spain on Monday in Curitiba.
Australia started strongly, showing they had no intention of exiting the tournament quietly following their opening 3-1 defeat to Chile. But despite the Socceroos' fine start, the Dutch took the lead in the 20th minute.
The danger seemed minimal when Robben picked up the ball at the midfield stripe and started dribbling toward goal in the 20th minute. When a player of Robben's quality has the ball at his feet, the possibility of brilliance is always present.
After powering through Australia's half, the Bayern Munich man set up his left foot and dispatched a low drive past Mathew Ryan for a 1-0 lead.
It didn't last long. Less than one minute later, Australia pulled level via a spectacular strike by Cahill that could go down as one of the supreme highlights of the tournament.
In the 21st minute, Australia right-back Ryan McGowan floated a cross from the right into the box where Cahill was lurking. With a splendid show of technique and timing, Cahill powered a dipping volley over Jasper Cillessen and into the net for a truly memorable equaliser.
B/R contributor Matteo Bonetti noted the impressive nature of Cahill's finish:
Ten minutes later, the Socceroos nearly went ahead, Mark Bresciano blazing over the bar from Mathew Leckie's pull-back on the right.
The other side of Cahill's game was on display late in the half as the forward clattered into Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi with a poor challenge. Cahill was booked—meaning he will miss Australia's final group game against Spain—and Indi left the match on a stretcher, replaced by Depay.
After starting the match in a 5-3-2 system originally designed to stop Spain, the Netherlands switched to a 4-3-3 with the introduction of Depay, Van Persie playing down the middle and Robben moving on the right.
With the match surprisingly level at 1-1 heading into half-time, Van Persie drew a yellow card within minutes of the restart for a hand to Matthew Spiranovic's face. It was the Dutch captain's second booking of the tournament, meaning he will miss his side's final group game against Chile.
If the 1-1 scoreline raised eyebrows at half-time, what came next was absolutely stunning. Australia won a penalty in the 53rd minute when the ball struck Daryl Janmaat's hand from close range inside the box, though replays suggested the decision was harsh, as Janmaat's hand was in a natural position.
Regardless, Jedinak stepped up to convert the spot-kick in the 54th minute, beating Cillessen with a low shot to give Australia a shocking 2-1 lead.
It lasted only four minutes, with the game quickly taking yet another dramatic turn.
In the 58th minute, Van Persie beat Australia's offside trap to pull the Netherlands level, accepting Depay's pass into the box before thumping in his finish high at the near post.
At 2-2, the match was delicately poised heading into the final half hour. The next chance fell to Australia in the 67th minute, and it was a golden opportunity indeed. Tommy Oar crossed dangerously for Leckie inside the box, but Leckie could only chest weakly at Cillessen.
One minute later, the Socceroos were made to pay for the miss. Finding himself with time and space in the midfield, Depay sliced a long-distance shot that bounced in front of Ryan and in off the Australian goalkeeper's hand for the Netherlands' third goal.
It turned out to be the winner, but the Dutch will escape Porto Alegre knowing they had to fight for the points against a determined Aussie side.
|Australia Player Ratings|
|Oliver Bozanic (for Bresciano, 51')||N/A||6|
|Ben Halloran (for Cahill, 68')||N/A||5|
|Adam Taggart (for Oar, 77')||N/A||5|
|Ratings by B/R UK|
|Netherlands Player Ratings|
|Stefan de Vrij||6||6|
|Bruno Martins Indi||6||N/A|
|Nigel de Jong||5||7|
|Jonathan de Guzman||5||5|
|Robin van Persie||6||7|
|Memphis Depay (for Indi, 45')||6||7|
|Georginio Wijnaldum (for De Guzman, 78')||N/A||5|
|Jeremain Lens (for Van Persie, 87')||N/A||No rating|
|Ratings by B/R UK|
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal praised Australia's first-half performance but insisted the Dutch were better after the break. Speaking to FIFA.com, he said:
I’m not relieved, because I believe in the second half we played better than Australia. In the first half they played better, but in the second half we had five, six, seven chances. I expected us to win. When (Matthew Leckie) missed that chance, I said to Patrick Kluivert, ‘We’re going to win this match.’ The way my players scored their goals was excellent, and it was very important for the spectators. And I don't like singling out players, but Nigel de Jong was inspirational.
Australia coach Ange Postecoglou was defiant despite the defeat, praising his side for playing well against two top sides in as many matches. Speaking to FIFA.com, he said:
We were playing against three of the best nations in the world. People said we weren’t going to even score a goal. The goal was to [perform so that] when we come back in four years’ time, they fear us before the game and not just when they see us on the pitch. I put pressure on the players and the staff to go and get at the big teams. Saying it and doing it two different things. But today they did that and they didn’t get a reward. It’s heartbreaking. The players deserved a reward today. Everyone was outstanding. For the majority of the game, we looked more likely to win than game than not.