December 10, 2017

Semifinals preview

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Robben’s Clockwork Orange: a formidable test today

The Netherland’s Arjen Robben practicing in Sao Paulo the day before the semifinal match with Argentina.
By Daniel Edwards

Failure to score in last match should not mean underestimating the Dutch

Just 90 minutes of soccer and one nation stand between Argentina and the dream of a fifth appearance in the World Cup final. Hopes are high in 2014. Alejandro Sabella’s charges have not played scintillating soccer, but the results have come when needed. Indeed, out of the four semi-finalists, the Albiceleste are the only side who can boast a perfect record of five wins in five.

Whenever things have looked bleak, Lionel Messi has not been far away. The Barcelona wizard has netted four times in the tournament, almost all of which proving to be crucial goals to assure victory, and a couple more in the last four would almost certainly see Argentina march on towards a date with destiny this Sunday in Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracaná cathedral of football.

But there is one daunting obstacle in the way of Messi’s men and the site of the 2014 World Cup final against the overwhelming Germany. If you have been paying attention throughout this tournament, you will know that semi-final rivals the Netherlands are not a side to be taken lightly.

The side coached by a European football legend made light work of a potentially tough Group B. In a thrilling match which set the tone for what has been an open, goal-filled World Cup, the Netherlands destroyed holders Spain 5-1 in their opening game, a result that shocked the football world. Even after going behind to a questionable Diego Costa penalty, the side dominated in a way that has rarely been seen between two teams supposedly ranked at a similar level.

Things were not so straightforward against Australia, where the nation had to dig deep in order to take a nerve-wracking 3-2 against the Socceroos, sending them out of the World Cup in the process. Chile were up next, and Jorge Sampaoli’s men suffered what proved to be their only defeat of the entire competition (not counting a subsequent shoot-out exit against Brazil). Two late goals, from substitutes Leroy Fer and Memphis Depay, ensured the side went through at the top of Group B, with maximum points.

A fiercely questioned penalty on Arjen Robben rescued victory in the last 16 against Mexico, while the massive Tim Krul became the Netherlands’ hero in the quarters when, in an unorthodox move, Van Gaal sent the Newcastle keeper on specifically for a penalty shoot-out. Krul subsequently saved two kicks, and was feted as a hero as the Netherlands’ booked their semi-final place at the expense of Costa Rica.

Do not be fooled by the Oranje failure to hit the net in their last outing. Their offensive set-up is arguably the most dangerous out of all the teams still left in the 2014 World Cup.

Just as Argentina have been inspired by “La Pulga’s” involvement on their way to the penultimate round, the Europeans have had their own hero. Winger Arjen Robben has been almost unstoppable for the Oranje so far, and his demolition of Spain in the first round almost deserves a Parental Advisory sticker.

The Bayern Munich star poses a constant threat as he starts on the right-hand side of attack, cutting in at will to switch to his favoured left foot and bore in on goal. But as Goal’s Stefan Coerts, a Dutch football correspondent who saw the Oranje first hand in Brazil during the World Cup, he is merely one of several potential dangermen.

“Netherlands’ main threat is their superb attack, with both Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie (suffering from stomach problems yesterday) having found the net three times, while impact substitute Memphis Depay has already scored twice, too,” Coerts affirms.

“Robben is arguably in the form of his life and his fast runs, incisive dribbling and clinical finishing are the main reasons for the Dutch’s superb run of form.”

If Argentina are to derail the Flying Dutchman, an improving defence will need to be better than ever. The midfield axis of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia comes into play here; Netherlands’ attacks will need to be cut off at source, before Robben even gets a sniff of the ball. Left-back Marcos Rojo, meanwhile, has been one of the revelations of the tournament so far for Argentina. But the Sporting player faces the challenge of a lifetime, tracking his opposite number as he marauds off the flank, and attempting to keep him as quiet as possible.

If that sounds like too much doom and gloom from an Argentine perspective, however, there are reasons to be positive. As Coerts explains, those at the back have not quite lived up to the example set by the superstars in attack.

“They don’t have the same quality in defence that they have up front. Players such as Stefan de Vrij, Ron Vlaar and Bruno Martins Indi have enjoyed fine tournaments so far, but all remain relatively inexperienced,” the writer admits, suggesting that Sabella’s own selection of brilliant forwards will find opportunities in Sao Paulo’s Corinthians Arena.

“It remains to be seen how they will cope with attackers of the highest calibre like Gonzalo Higuaín, Kun Agüero and Lionel Messi,” he says.

Watching the machine in action — in Spanish, the Netherlands have been nicknamed since the 1970s the Naranja Mecánica, or Clockwork Orange, juxtaposing the brilliant “Total Football” team of that era with Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian novel — is Van Gaal, who has seen everything the game has to offer in a glittering career that has taken in spells at Barcelona, Ajax and Bayern Munich. The 62-year-old leaves for Manchester United at the end of the tournament, and one feels he would love to sign off his time with the national team by finally bringing the World Cup home after three failed.


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