By Ridge Mahoney
Here are a trio of impressions in the wake of Spain crashing from its pedestal and the Netherlands rebounding from a dismal showing two years ago in the European Championships:
THE DUTCH ARE A TREAT.Finalists in 2010 but first-round victims at the Euros two years ago, the Dutch came into the 2014 World Cup clouded by doubts.
They had won nine of 10 qualifiers without playing a team ranked by FIFA amongst the top 30 nations in the world, so their incredible goal margin of 35-5 seemed tainted. Well, they romped through Group B by scoring 10 and conceding three with a bold elan typified by Robin van Persie’s spectacular flying header late in the first half against Spain.
There’s no question the Dutch can attack with speed and menace. Arjen Robben’s sensational solo goal against Australia was as devastating as it was brilliantly simple; he charged through a challenge to win a ball in midfield and motored through the middle to finish smartly. He netted twice against Spain by getting possession in the box -- once from a chipped pass, once on the dribble -- and smashing home left-footed shots.
The Dutch played some great soccer in 2010 as well. They topped their group by winning all three games, defeating Denmark (2-0), Japan (1-0), and Cameroon (2-1). Slovakia fell in the round of 16 by a 2-1 score, as did Brazil in the quarterfinals. They then ousted upstart Uruguay, 3-2, in the semifinals thanks to goals just three minutes apart by Wesley Sneijder and Robben to break open a 1-1 tie.
Rather than risk an open game against the matadors of Spain in the final, the Dutch came out clawing and hacking. Nigel de Jong’s kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso for which he wasn’t sent off exemplified their approach that day. Seven of de Jong’s teammates were also shown the yellow card, and John Heitingadeparted after viewing it twice. So there’s always the suspicion they could revert to their rugged ways in the knockout phase.
And Australia exposed a few defensive frailties. Tim Cahill’s sensational volley a minute after Robben scored couldn’t be stopped but the Aussies kept pushing. Australia took a 2-1 lead early in the second half before van Persie equalized and Memphis Depay scored with a long, bouncing shot that Aussie keeper Maty Ryanshould have saved.
Dank je wel to the Dutch for their electrifying play in a first-round rife with goals and drama. They certainly did their more than their share.
ADIOS ESPANA.No one was too surprised that a magical run that began with the 2008 European Championships finally ran its course in 2014, but the suddenness and totality of said ending did cause consternation. The Spaniards couldn’t recover from their roasting by the Dutch and were eliminated when they lost their second group match to Chile, 2-0. A 3-0 defeat of Australia sent them home with at least some pride restored yet beset by questions of what happens next.
Everton manager and Spanish native Roberto Martinez, whose inspired and insightful commentary on ESPN is ample reason to tune in, bluntly stated that the generation of players that mesmerized the world by slick passing and seemingly endless possession has aged and fresh faces are needed to carry the banner forward. A decided lack of leadership -- yes, stalwart defender Carles Puyolmissed the tournament because of injuries but numerous other veterans had shouldered that burden in recent years -- and a glaring dearth of spirit and energy left observers puzzled.
Before the tournament, all-time record scorer David Villa -- who will start his MLS career in January with New York City FC -- announced he would retire from international play. He signed off by netting an amazing back-heeled goal, his 59th for his country, in the 3-0 defeat of Australia.
Many players were apparently burned out from grueling league and international seasons with Champions League winner Real Madrid, La Liga titlist Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, and they fell victim to shrewd tactical plans that bottled up the Spanish midfield and ran at their back line at every opportunity.
The world awaits to know how many members of this golden generation will follow Villa to close out a wonderful era.
CHILE REDUX.For the second straight World Cup, Chile advanced out of a group that included Spain, and once again it will face Brazil in the round of 16.
It secured that spot by powering past Spain in the second group game, seizing the initiative early by buzzing the Spanish goal twice in the opening minutes and taking a 2-0 halftime lead on goals by Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz. It then frustrated its opponent in the same manner as Spain has done the past six years, by moving into open spaces and knocking crisp, accurate passes. Roared on by entire sections of fans clad mainly in red, Chile rode that energy to one of its most memorable victories.
Rather than work its way into the tournament when it opened against Australia, Chile charged out of the gate and led, 2-0, after 14 minutes. Alexis Sanchez and Jorge Valdiviascored just two minutes apart and it then had to work hard to contain the Australians, which got back a goal through Cahill and pestered Chile until Jean Beausejournetted in stoppage time. A measure of the team's attacking zeal is this stat: in the three group games, Sanchez was fouled 15 times
One of the interesting subplots to the round of 16 showdown is how many Chilean fans can get tickets to the game Saturday in Belo Horizonte. Capacity at the Estadio Mineirao is 58,170. Regardless, Chilean representation at the FanFests will be large, loud and boisterous.