Netherlands couldn't quite manage to match their World Cup achievements of four years ago, as the 2010 losing finalists this time bowed out at the semi-final stage of the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
After a cautious and unambitious 120 minutes of action against Argentina, Netherlands were eliminated by way of a penalty shootout, losing 4-2 to the South Americans with Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder missing the decisive spot-kicks.
Despite the expected disappointment of being eliminated just one step away from the final, Netherlands can arguably be crowned one of the biggest over-achievers of the finals, having gone far beyond most expectations in reaching the last four.
Not 2010 Vintage
Four years ago, the Dutch might not always have played the fast-flowing, attacking football they have been noted for, but they had a number of key players in prime ages to make an impact.
Nigel de Jong, Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder were all between 25 and 29, with Rafael van der Vaart still on the scene, experienced captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst still a force and a selection of experienced defenders to call on.
This time around, those initial five players are all 30 and above with the exception of De Jong, 29, with a host of younger, home-based defenders charged with keeping guard at the back.
Kevin Strootman, a key midfielder for Louis van Gaal, was absent with injury, Van der Vaart suffered an injury pre-tournament and none of the newer additions to the squad had been able to make an impact with goalscoring at the international level. Of the players aged under 30 in the World Cup squad, only Jeremain Lens has managed to hit more than two goals for the Oranje.
All told, despite there being some undoubted class remaining, it certainly wasn't a squad with the expectation and experience of four years previous—plus a disastrous Euro 2012 campaign was far closer to mind than a four-years-past final.
Spain have picked 12 of the 14 players used in the 2010 World Cup final in their squad. Only 6 of Holland's likely to make their initial 30!— Simon Gleave (@SimonGleave) May 13, 2014
Former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar commented pre-tournament, as per FIFA.com, that Brazil 2014 would be about seeing which youngsters could step up for the future:
We are in a little bit more of a difficult time now, we don't have the 10 or 11 world class players in our team – we have maybe three or four and they are getting older. So it's about time that the young Dutch generation pick up the laurels from the older ones and hopefully can achieve, first with their clubs and then the national team, a little more success than over the last three or four years. No, three years, as four years ago we were in the final!
Group of Death?
It wasn't just the playing staff that had onlookers doubting Netherlands' ability to make an impact: Chile and Spain were hugely fancied to take the top two spots, with the fast-paced, all-action style of Chile an exciting proposition and Spain, of course, the reigning champions.
Australia weren't expected to put up much competition, though as it transpired, that was the game Netherlands had most trouble with.
Nobody, nobody, expected Netherlands to avenge their 2010 final defeat in such an extraordinary way.
It might have been different had David Silva taken the chance to put Spain 2-0 up before half-time, but instead 1-0 down became 5-1 up and Netherlands grew from that moment, trusting in Van Gaal's tactical alterations, their own ability to attack and outscore the opposition.
It could be argued that their failure to follow that plan against Argentina was ultimately their downfall in going even further.
Van Gaal Gone
Despite being unfancied, despite missing a key player or two and despite having agreed to a new job before the tournament started, Van Gaal led Netherlands to the last four, an admirable finish, all things considered.
Being the driven, expectant manager he is, though, it will still be seen as a missed opportunity and something of a defeat by the boss, who could feasibly use this as great motivation to be an instant success in his new role next season, returning to club football with Manchester United.
While Van Gaal certainly had success with Bayern Munich—the Bundesliga title and German Cup double in 2010—it must be acknowledged that he runs the risk of being seen as becoming something of a "nearly man." Since his success with Barcelona in his first spell ended with the 1999 league title, the ensuing decade-and-a-half has yielded only two further titles: that Bayern league win, and one with AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Meanwhile, a title defeat in 2000, a runner-up spot with AZ in 2006, third a year later alongside a Cup final defeat, a surrendering of his title with Bayern and now a World Cup semi-final knockout make it a longer list of close calls than actual victories since the turn of the century.
If the Dutch tactician needed any further motivation to prove his worth, perhaps the disappointing semi-final exit—no matter how much further than expected Netherlands went—might prove to be a crucial kick-starter to Van Gaal's winning habit.
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