It has not escaped anyone the Netherlands are doing extraordinarily well this World Cup. After ridding themselves of Spain as if it was nothing in the opening match, they went on to earn nine points in three matches, scoring 10 goals along the way. The praise currently directed to them has been well earned: Contrary to what was expected, the Oranje might even stand a chance at making it all the way to the final.
Four years ago, the Netherlands did just that. After beating Brazil in the quarter-final and Uruguay in the semi-final, they were up against Spain. Employing a proactive, and at times even aggressive style of play, the Dutch even came close to winning it.
Oranje’s ultimate chance to score the only goal of regular time came halfway through the second half, when Arjen Robben broke through Spain’s high defensive line and ran towards Iker Casillas for a one-on-one.
Face to face with the Spanish goalkeeper, Robben waited to long, or maybe not long enough, and his attempt at chipping the ball into the net was thwarted by Casillas’ right toe. Robben clasped his head with his heads and fell to his knees. After extra-time, the Spaniards won.
While he had played an important role in getting his team to the final, Robben failed when it mattered most, and his missed chance to score will probably forever be the biggest letdown of his career. No amount of Bundesliga titles and Champions League wins will ever wash away the disappointment.
Flash forward four years and Robben is once again functioning as a constitutive player in a successful Dutch team. But while it’s not quite clear yet how this Netherlands incarnation will stack up to their 2010 counterparts, it has already become obvious Robben is playing better than ever.
Against Spain, Robben contributed two goals to the Netherlands’ unprecedented 5-1 victory. In that same match, the winger recorded the fastest speed ever clocked by a footballer, as per ESPNFC.com. Against Australia, Robben bagged another goal, and while he didn’t manage to find the net against Chile, he provided the all-important assist to Depay’s tap in.
There seems to be a limit to what most players are capable of, and Robben has finally reached his. At the age of 30, Robben is peaking during this World Cup. Never has he played as well as he has done during the Netherlands’ group matches, and never will he get better.
Taking himself and his team to new heights, Robben must be feeling like he’s standing on top of a mountain. Never mind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo: So far, Robben has outclassed them both.
But while Oranje is reaping the rewards from Robben’s form at the moment, the memory of four years ago has not quite faded yet. Thinking back of that miserable encounter with Casillas’ toe and the hangover that followed, the question arises: Will Robben be able to do all of this when it matters most?
Of course, Spain, Australia and Chile were not the easiest of opponents, and of course, group matches are played under a lot of pressure as well. But during the knockout stage, when all bets are off and teams know they only get one opportunity to fight for their lives, the conditions are simply different, more intense.
Naturally, this works both ways, and nerves will start playing a bigger role for the Dutch as well. Having reached the final of the World Cup three times, but having never won it, the Netherlands are sometimes accused of being incapable of performing when it matters most. What will happen this time around? Will Oranje once again be faced with nerve issues?
Will there be an equivalent of Robben’s one-on-one with Casillas during this tournament’s final, or semi-final, or quarter final? And what will Robben do this time? Will his attempt be thwarted again—by a toe, a finger, a shoelace?
Or will he finally rid himself of the demons that have been haunting him for four years now, capitalise on his unprecedented form and score an all-important winning goal?
This, of course, remains to be seen. But one thing is perfectly clear already: Going into the knockout stages of the World Cup in Brazil, there will be carloads of pressure on Robben to keep up his jaw-dropping form.
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