Late goals from Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar gave the Netherlands a dramatic 2-1 victory over Mexico on Sunday in a thrilling FIFA World Cup round-of-16 match in scorching conditions at the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil.
Mexico led for most of the second half through Giovani dos Santos' well-struck volley in the 48th minute, and El Tri seemed destined for the quarter-finals until Sneijder equalised in the 88th minute. Huntelaar then grabbed the winner from the penalty spot in stoppage time.
As Dutch freelance writer Elko Born noted, the Netherlands began to control the match after manager Louis van Gaal switched to a 4-3-3 system in the second half:
With the victory, the Netherlands advanced to the quarter-finals to face either Costa Rica or Greece on Saturday in Salvador. The Dutch are now only two wins away from a repeat trip to the final, which they lost four years ago to Spain.
If the Oranje do make it that far, Sunday's unlikely comeback could go down as a decisive turning point. Wilting in the hot conditions in Fortaleza, Van Gaal's side was unable to beat Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa for nearly 90 minutes. But after surviving such a tough test, the Dutch will now fancy themselves to make another deep World Cup run.
Mexico, on the other hand, will likely need time to recover from the result. El Tri were moments away from advancing to the quarter-finals for just the third time, and first since 1986. Following five straight trips to the Round of 16—and five consecutive exits at that stage—El Tri seemed set to make a historic run in Brazil.
Miguel Herrera's side started well and created the better chances in a scoreless first half, though the Netherlands had a strong penalty appeal turned down just before half-time.
The Dutch received bad news early in the match as midfielder Nigel de Jong limped off with an injury in the ninth minute. Bruno Martins Indi replaced him.
Mexico created a good chance in the 17th minute, Hector Herrera dragging a shot wide from Oribe Peralta's layoff. Seven minutes later, Carlos Salcido tried his luck from distance, forcing Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen into an unconvincing save.
The teams received a respite from the elements in the 32nd minute as referee Pedro Proenca halted play for a cooling break. Ten minutes later, Dos Santos tested Cillessen again with a low shot from a tight angle, which the Dutch goalkeeper saved.
Just before half-time, the Netherlands had a strong penalty appeal turned down after Arjen Robben went to ground in the box. Replays clearly showed Hector Moreno had made contact, but the referee waved play on.
Moreno was injured on the play and was unable to continue. The defender left the field on a stretcher, and Diego Reyes replaced him at half-time.
The injury had no adverse effect on Mexico, however. Within minutes of the restart, El Tri took the lead.
The chance stemmed from a poor Netherlands clearance, Dos Santos chesting down the ball to himself outside the box. With superb concentration, he hit a well-struck volley that bounced past Cillessen and nestled in the bottom corner.
Trailing 1-0, the Netherlands went on the offensive. A big chance came in the 57th minute as Stefan de Vrij volleyed a Robben corner on target from close range. But Ochoa made an outstanding reaction save, pushing the ball onto the bar before it bounced away to safety.
Sneijder then had a shot deflected narrowly wide in the 61st minute, and Robben's cross-shot, intended for Sneijder, bounced inches past the post two minutes later.
Robben created more danger in the 74th minute, skipping through Mexico's defence before shooting from a tight angle on the right. But Ochoa saved one-on-one, kicking away Robben's low effort.
A second cooling break gave the Netherlands a chance to regroup in the 76th minute, and another chance arrived nine minutes later. But once again, Ochoa saved from close range on Huntelaar, who had been ruled offside regardless.
Just when it seemed there was no way past Ochoa, Sneijder produced a late, dramatic equaliser to give his side new life. Robben curled in a corner from the right for Huntelaar to head back to Sneijder along the edge of the box. Timing his volley perfectly, Sneijder drilled his low shot past Ochoa to draw the Dutch level at 1-1.
It was harsh on Mexico, who were gutted. But it soon became even worse.
In the second minute of stoppage time, Robben drew a foul in Mexico's box, falling dramatically after slight contact with Mexico's Rafa Marquez. After a delay, Huntelaar drove in the spot-kick confidently to give the Dutch an improbable lead. Ochoa—who had been so spectacular throughout the tournament—had no chance.
|Netherlands Player Ratings|
|Stefan de Vrij||6||7|
|Nigel de Jong||5||N/A|
|Robin van Persie||6||5.5|
|Bruno Martins Indi (for De Jong, 9)||6||6|
|Memphis Depay (for Verhaegh, 56')||N/A||6.5|
|Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (for Van Persie, 76')||N/A||7|
|Mexico Player Ratings|
|Giovani dos Santos||6.5||7|
|Diego Reyes (for Moreno, 46')||N/A||6|
|Javier Aquino (for Dos Santos, 61')||N/A||6|
|Javier Hernandez (for Peralta, 75')||N/A||5|
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal said he used the second-half cooling break to tinker with his side's shape—to good effect:
FIFA.com quoted van Gaal as saying:
I have to give credit to my players: I think they were in much better shape and much more focused than our opponents. They never stopped believing, right to the end. They showed belief and a lot of confidence. We took advantage of the water break to tweak our system and created loads of chances, some of them denied by the woodwork and others by a keeper who has been fantastic. (Wesley) Sneijder is one of the most on-form players in my team: He's the one who covers most kilometres and his technique is outstanding.
Mexico coach Miguel Herrera hit out at the referee's decision to award a late penalty:
FIFA.com quoted Herrera as saying:
I think that the team have played well this whole World Cup. We've achieved some very good things, but nobody can take away the bitter taste of this defeat. We did a good job but made mistakes, while the Netherlands did a great job to hold on, keep fighting and finally turn the scoreline around. But this wasn't the Dutch team everyone's been talking about, this is a side that's vulnerable and can be beaten. In physical terms, we never dipped, we were solid and we fought to the final whistle. In my view, my players were extraordinary.