[UNDER THE MICROSCOPE] According to some observers, Dutch mifielder Wesley Sneijder hasn't been very prominent, a stance that is hard to justify when he leads the team in shots (20), goals (4) and fouls committed (12) for a team that has won all five of its games at the 2010 World Cup and faces Uruguay Tuesday in a semifinal.
He’s certainly less busy than Dirk Kuyt, a constantly moving menace on the left, and slower than Arjen Robben, whose flying forays up the right flank can stretch a team’s defensive alignment out of shape. Yet Sneijder is very hard for a defense to track and is seldom static.
With those two spread wide, and Robin Van Persie playing as a lone forward, Sneijder is expected to work combinations with them or play balls for them behind the opponent’s back line, yet look for shooting opportunities himself. According to FIFA stats, he’s hit 15 of his 20 shots from outside the penalty area.
That threat from medium distance will pose problems for Uruguay’s holding mids Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo, both of whom labored to get through 120 minutes against the fast, tough Ghanaians. Uruguay’s core is further weakened by the probable absence of center back and captain Diego Lugano, who hobbled out of the Ghana match with a knee injury.
Against Uruguay the Dutch attacking quartet will not be buttressed by Nigel De Jong (suspended), and central partner Mark Van Bommel is more prone to fouls than finesse passes, so link play to Sneijder may be limited. This may not be a major concern, however, since Sneijder is perfectly comfortable dropping deep to get the ball and isn’t afraid to push it upfield himself, though he prefers to find an open teammate with an early pass and get forward off the ball.
Sneijder, 26, plays a somewhat similar role for Inter Milan, which captured a remarkable treble last spring of la scudetto (as Serie A champion), Italian Cup and Champions’ League. Sneijder goes box to box, takes shots from distance, and probes for spaces and gaps to thread his passes. He is dangerous on free kicks within 30 yards of goal; a line drive into the lower corner that pulled Inter into a 3-3 tie last January in the 88th minute against Siena being just one example.
If Rafael Van der Vaart replaces De Jong, he can supply some attacking impetus; the other choices, Demy De Zeeuw or Stijn Schaars, are holding types in the De Jong mold. He’ll likely be marked tightly and fouled often by Uruguay, which is certainly aware that his intensity sometimes boils over. If the game stagnates in midfield and Sneijder is bottled up, Coach Bert Van Marwijk can inject Eljero Elia to add some speed and brazenness.
The Netherlands scored its first goal against Slovakia with a Sneijder long ball from a throw-in broken up by defender Joris Mathijsen. Sneijder, less than 10 yards outside his own penalty area, took one touch and then hit a long diagonal ball to the right channel that fell for Robben to run onto, dribble inside a pair of defenders and strike low just inside the near post.
By the time the ball hit the net, Sneijder had already reached the attacking third just in case the attack needed support. “He’s always looking to orientate himself with the goal,” says Fox Soccer Channel analyst and former U.S. international Christopher Sullivan. “He has great vision in that regard. He looks for the shot himself or to play it to someone who can take it towards the goal.”
The Uruguayans will likely be without Lugano and regular left back Diego Fucile (suspended), so they are likely to consolidate their midfield and back line to shut off Kuyt, Van Persie and Robben. How Sneijder deals with a packed, aggressive defense and his service from set plays are vital elements in this match.
There didn’t appear to be much danger early in the second half with Brazil leading, 1-0. Sneijder played a free kick short to Robben on the right flank, and when the ball came back to him immediately, Robben took it a few yards away from goal to make space to strike a swerving inswinger on goal from nearly 40 yards out. The Dutch players were marked up, but as they charged for the ball Brazilian midfielder Felipe Melo collided with Julio Cesar as the keeper lunged to punch the ball and missed. It glanced off Melo’s head into the goal and was eventually recorded as Sneijder’s goal after an initial ruling as an own goal.
Sneijder’s four goals at this tournament are of myriad methods.
He tapped in a square ball from Kuyt to seal a 2-1 defeat of Slovakia, and his point-blank header from a Kuyt flick completed the comeback against Brazil. (His delightful celebration, racing around joyously while slapping his forehead, signifies how rare is that occurrence.) One of his 15 shots from outside the penalty area, set up by a Van Persie layoff, nearly sheared off the glove of Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima on its way into the net. With that goal in group play the Dutch downed Japan, 1-0, and clinched a spot in the last 16.
Sneijder normally takes free kicks near the penalty area and corner kicks from the right side. The Netherlands changed up its routine against Brazil, however; minutes after taking a corner kick from the right, Sneijder instead lined up in the goal area, and when Kuyt flicked on Robben’s left-footed inswinger, Sneijer easily headed home from four yards out. A few minutes later, he ran onto a throw-in to hit a left-footed cross that Julio Cesar handled
If he gets the Dutch to their third World Cup final, he’ll have an opportunity to achieve a very rare feat: that of winning the World Cup and a club treble in the same season.