The Dutch became the third
team to reach the semifinal by winning all five of its games so far, following England and the USA. There’s little question that in this tournament, the teams that have made it into the fourth
week deserve to be there. And in the second half, the reigning European champions showed they can not only dominate a game, they can play with the consistency necessary to add to their honors.
Rated primarily for their attacking trio of Vivianne Miedema, Lieke Martens and Shanice Van de Sanden, it was the midfield quality of Sherida Spitse, the busy Danielle Van de Donk, and the under-rated Jackie Groenen – steady throughout this entire World Cup so far - that won the day.
Spitse’s delivery on the two free kicks for Miedema’s and Stefanie Van der Gragt’s headed goals was inch perfect. She also grazed the post with another effort as the Dutch created chance after chance right from the start of the second half. The trio remained composed to win multiple balls, and then distribute them too, at a time when both the temperature of the air and the game were threatening to burst out the top of the thermometer.
This team was supposed to tire in the heat. “Watch in the second half, they’ll wilt,” one Dutch journalist said to me at half-time, perhaps more informed by that peculiar northern European pessimism that readies itself for the worse than by knowledge of his women’s stamina. It was the Dutch who’d unsuccessfully lobbied FIFA for a more sensible kick-off time, with temperatures slated to be 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) at the time of the 3 p.m. start. Yet they came out of the locker room for the second half looking fresher than spring tulips in Amsterdam.
There’s been another factor in the Dutch success, which has been their loud and enthusiastic traveling support. For the second time in this tournament, they enjoyed having a Saturday "home" game in Valenciennes, almost on the French-Belgian border, allowing orange-clad fans in their thousands to come and get behind a team with character, flair and staying power. It’s to be hoped they will make the trip to Lyon for the semifinal on Wednesday.
The Italians, sadly, resorted to kicking out when the Dutch took hold of the game. They failed to exploit two excellent opportunities in the first half, when the Dutch defense was in a more generous mood. Valentina Bergamaschi missed a huge chance alone in front of Sari Van Veenendal after Barbara Bonansea headed her into the clear. The right-back could only chip the ball into the keeper’s arms. Then the nimble Valentina Giacinti dragged her shot wide from the left hand side of the area after Bergamaschi had found her in liberal amounts of space.
The first half was riddled with mistakes from both sides, and seemed to sum up a lot of the Dutch play in the tournament so far. They had most of the ball, played most of the soccer, but couldn’t turn dominance into serious opportunity. Fluent moves ended with weak shots or wayward crosses. Shanice Van de Sanden wasted so much possession she’s probably going to fly home and find she’s lost her house. Only once in the first 45 minutes did she manage to combine with her full-back, Desiree Van Lunteren, who crossed straight at Italian keeper Laura Giuliani.
Van de Sanden’s awful first half was followed by her best spell right after half-time, but Wiegman had seen enough and swapped her out for Lineth Beerensteyn after 10 minutes. The muscular winger did not have the game-winning effect that she’s had in previous matches, but she wasn’t much needed. Miedema glanced home a wonderful header to put her team ahead, and later forced Giuliani into a finger-tip save. Van de Donk hit the cross-bar with a deft lob after a corner fell to her on the edge of the area. As if to prove the all-round talent of the team, Van Veenendaal saved superbly at the feet of Daniela Sabatino on Italy’s lone second half chance.
By then, Italy were 2-0 in arrears and on their way out -- hot and bothered, tired and whiny. They accumulated five yellow cards and, after starting this tournament so well, may have lost some of the admirers they’d picked up. Dirty teams belong with dirty jerseys – out by the back door.
VAR-Watch: Referee Claudia Umpierrez had an almost impeccable game and kept the temperamental, dissenting Italian team under control with several stern lectures and a judicious use of the caution. Her only mistake was in not playing the advantage after Miedema was fouled by Elena Linari in the first half, from which the Dutch striker quickly recovered to nip through on goal with only Giuliani to beat. Linari will have been happy to pay the price of a yellow card for that.
Best of all, though, not a squeak all game from the VAR. It seems that over the past few games, the man in the booth has been sticking more to the remit outlined in FIFA’s own media guide of “minimum interference, maximum benefit”, with intervention only “to correct obvious errors”. There’s been much discussion about France not being awarded a penalty for Kelly O’Hara’s apparent handball late in last night’s game. To me, not giving that penalty was not an obvious error at all. Well played, that VAR. Keep on keeping quiet.