Sneijder, Robben and Huntelaar Change the Netherlands' Fortunes Against Mexico

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Sneijder, Robben and Huntelaar Change the Netherlands' Fortunes Against Mexico
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

After a thrilling round-of-16 match, during which Oranje scored twice in the dying minutes of the game, the Netherlands have progressed to the quarter-finals by beating Mexico 2-1.

Once again, the Netherlands needed a break, and just as in their group stage match against Australia, they fought their way back from behind. More so than in the match against Australia, however, it felt like the Dutch needed a dose of luck as much as they needed their skills against Mexico.

Before Wesley Sneijder equalised by thumping the ball past a seemingly invincible Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican goalkeeper, the Netherlands' situation was almost reminiscent of Euro 2008, when a still young Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie—who had just broken through at club level—ran riot during the group stage matches against Italy (3-0) and France (4-1).

In the quarter-final, however, the all-conquering Dutch team suddenly looked lost against Russia. Against all expectations, the Netherlands lost 3-1 and were sent home.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press/Associated Press
Sneijder against Russia at Euro 2008

After the group stage in 2008, it had looked like Oranje would go on to win the tournament. But when push came to shove, the Netherlands completely lost the plot against a team they should have been able to beat.

Against Mexico, six years later, a similar scenario seemed on the cards. With only minutes to go, the Mexicans were leading 1-0, and once again, it looked like the tournament would soon be over for the Dutch—despite the impressive group stage wins against Spain, Australia and Chile.

But then, like a sudden plot twist in a suspenseful film or novel, Sneijder popped up to change the face of the game completely. Finally showing he still has fantastic shooting skills, he transformed a feeling of utter disappointment into pure ecstasy for the Dutch.

Having turned things around, the Netherlands then marched on to victory by winning a penalty, which Klaas-Jan Huntelaar converted.

This is where luck played its part, perhaps. Even so, it was a lucky break partly made possible by the tactical tinkering done by manager Louis van Gaal, who once again changed from a 5-3-2 to a 4-3-3 formation in the second half.

During a World Cup, it is difficult, if not completely impossible, to play well from the very first match until the final showdown in the final. Every now and then, you need a bit of luck, and the Netherlands received their fix Sunday.

"Yes, we escaped," Van Gaal said, per ESPN FC. "But we showed that we could create more chances with 4-3-3, and the players handled this shift very well."

Almost every successful team has had similar luck at one point. Oranje did not at Euro 2008; that's why they failed. This Dutch team—much wiser, with players more experienced and mentally strong than six years ago—is currently looking like a team that has just about everything going for it.

Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

As Grant Wahl noted for Sports Illustrated:

Good teams win games when they’re not playing at their best, and that was especially the case with the Netherlands, which seemed to be running in molasses for most of this game. In the first World Cup game ever with pre-planned cooling breaks, the Dutch didn’t seem as fit as the Mexican players, but they dug deep in the second half and took advantage of substitutions by Louis van Gaal that showed him out-coaching [Miguel] Herrera.

If even Lady Fortuna is an ally, there's no way of telling how far the Netherlands will come, but by winning matches like this, Oranje is making it very difficult not to count them amongst the contenders for the World Cup.

Likely, the Netherlands' squad, and Van Gaal, will realise this as well. Surely, the Dutch players will feel like they have received a huge boost from Sunday's nerve-racking spectacle.

Ahead of the quarter-final, the Dutch will undoubtedly look at the ordeal they survived and realise they are on a truly special campaign.

The Dutch, fluctuating from their awe-inspiring performance against Spain to this scrappy, blood-stained win against Mexico, have had their big break, and now they'll want to go all the way.

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