In the wake of a stunning 5-1 thrashing of Spain administered by the Netherlands in the opening game
of Group B, here are some thoughts.
Here's Robben. He’s prickly, he’s petulant, and he has certainly been known to pout, but there’s no questioning the potency and power that Dutch winger Arjen Robben can unleash.
He’s one of those rare wide players equally dangerous flying up the flanks to serve a ball or darting inside to shoot for goal. Before Spain took the lead, he’d already unhinged its defense and played a great ball into space that Wesley Sneijder hit straight to the keeper. Once the Dutch had equalized with a superb Robin van Persie header from a cross lofted from the left side by Daley Blind, the center opened up for the Dutch to riddle the defending champion’s back line.
Robben, 30, scored the winning goal eight minutes into the second half by darting through the middle to control a long ball with an acrobatic touch and then firing his shot home. He added the fifth goal in the final minutes by blowing past the Spanish back line and slashing inside to score again. His dazzling play -- he set up the first goal and scored the winner in the 89th minute of the final -- helped Bayern Munich win the Champions League a year ago.
He is competing in his sixth consecutive major championship, going back a decade to the 2004 European Championship. If he’s on form in the next two games, the Dutch aren’t likely to repeat their first-round exit of two years ago at the European Championship.
What's next for Spain? Never before in the World Cup had a defending champion lost by four goals but beyond the scoreline lies a more sobering question: is this a minor setback, such as the 1-0 opening-game loss to Switzerland in 2010 from which Spain recovered to win the title, or the beginning of the end?
A legendary cast of players has propelled Spain to three consecutive major titles: the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup. Against the Netherlands, defenders Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique looked slow and confused, midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta faded as the Dutch took command, and keeper Iker Casillas gave away the fourth goal by pushing the ball right to van Persie.
Head coach Vicente Del Bosque consoled his players in the final minutes and now faces probably the greatest psychological test of his national-team tenure. As defending champions, France (in 2002) and Italy (2010) crashed out of the World Cup after the first round and Spain’s long cast of veteran players must face that prospect in their two remaining group games.
Embrace says it all. After his spectacular looping header tied the game, van Persie sprinted over to the Dutch bench to slap palms with and hug head coach Louis Van Gaal, who after the World Cup will join his striker at Manchester United. The team captain and head coach are supposed to get along, of course, but that moment signified a powerful bond.
After scoring 26 goals for United and winning the Premier League title in his first season after a transfer from Arsenal, van Persie netted only 12 goals last season as the team struggled under manager David Moyes. Frustrated under Moyes’ system, van Persie also encountered strange circumstances such as getting injured when he fell into a television camera near the sideline.
Van Gaal’s implementation of various formations based on a three-man back line have invigorated the Dutch team, and it seems his presence has also injected new life into his captain. “World-class” best describes van Persie’s flying header that netted the first goal and sparked a dominant second half performance.