Robben 18, Sneijder 84
The Netherlands are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup after a comfortable win over Slovakia. Goals from the returning Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder were enough to beat the Slovakians who could not repeat their famous victory that knocked Italy out of the tournament, Robert Vittek grabbing their late reply from the penalty spot.
It took just 65 seconds for Erik Jendrisek to have Slovakia’s first effort on goal, shooting just over after he was fed by Vladimir Weiss. Robin van Persie should have done better with a seventh minute header, meeting Dirk Kuyt’s cross at the back post with a poor connection and seeing it deflected behind. Van Persie turned provider three minutes later but Sneijder could only scuff his finish straight at Jan Mucha. Juraj Kucka fired wide of the far post at the other end after 14 minutes from the corner of the area before Robben fired the Dutch ahead after 18 minutes with a fine individual goal. Sneijder played a long ball over the top for Robben to latch on to and he cut inside from the right before firing inside the near post from 25 yards. The Netherlands failed to build on their lead before half time, van Persie shooting straight at Mucha five minutes before the break.
Robben came close to a second five minutes after half time, shooting from the edge of the area and forcing a finger tip save from Mucha. Moments later, Robben cut the ball back to Joris Mathijsen yards out from goal and his effort was blocked by Mucha with his face. Mucha had to be brave just before the hour mark, pushing out van Persie’s whipped freekick at the near post under heavy challenge from Kuyt. At the other end, Maarten Stekelenburg had had a quiet game in the Dutch goal but he was called into action twice in quick succession after 67 minutes. First, he had to tip over after Miroslav Stoch cut in from the left and shot, then Vittek was played through but Stekelenburg stayed big and pushed his effort away. Kuyt could have sealed the game twice in three minutes, heading a 70th minute freekick over from eight yards then seeing Mucha palm his 25 yard effort round the post. The Netherlands finally grabbed their second goal after Kuyt beat Mucha to the ball on the edge of the area and he squared for Sneijder to finish. Vittek scored a consolation penalty with the last kick of the game after Stekelenburg fouled Martin Jakubko.
The Netherlands were able to call on Robben from the start for the first time at this World Cup and it did not take him long to show what his side had been missing. Rafael van der Vaart made way for him having been stationed on the left for the three group games, but it was from the right that Robben played with Kuyt switching wings. Although the Dutch were still without a natural threat on the left, it is arguable that Robben is more effective cutting in from the right and he is certainly a better winger on either flank than Kuyt is on his preferred right and van der Vaart is at all. Basing the selection around Robben made a lot of sense and paid dividends with a trademark solo goal in the first quarter of the game. Kuyt was a better selection than van der Vaart would have been on the opposite flank, his superior tactical discipline and team ethic giving the Netherlands a better balance despite it not being a natural role for him.
Even with Robben in tow, the Dutch were still not firing on all cylinders but they could well have been out of sight but for a fine performance from Mucha. The Slovakian keeper is joining Everton after the World Cup, a team that has one of the Premier League’s most reliable custodians in Tim Howard. On this evidence, Mucha will be a luxury backup for manager David Moyes to be able to call upon and could have done an excellent job for other rival clubs in need of a first choice shot stopper. He made several top class saves and showed excellent reflexes, but his bravery added extra value to his performance. He appeared unafraid to take a ball in the face from close range or a knee to the torso to keep his goal protected. Mucha blotted his copybook late on by coming to the edge of his box and not getting the ball for the second goal, but it was thanks to him that Slovakia had remained in the game that long.
Slovakia were unable to repeat their fine performance that saw off Italy, remaining relatively solid defensively but being far more cautious in attack. Having fielded both Stoch and Weiss in the same team instead of replacing the absent Zdenko Strba with the more defensive Kamil Kopunek, it looked like Slovakia were setup to give the Dutch as much of a test as they gave the Italians. Instead, they sat deep and waited patiently to attack, rarely finding the cutting edge that they needed. Stekelenburg was rarely called into action in the Dutch goal for long periods and the Netherlands were always comfortable. That the goal from Robben came the first time that Slovakia had stepped higher up the field showed that they were not able to play on the front foot successfully and they were defeated from the moment his shot hit the net.
The Netherlands now face a quarter-final against South American opposition, possibly Chile but most likely Brazil. The Dutch have yet to really show their best form yet despite winning four straight games at the World Cup and will need to step up a gear against either opponent. The addition of Robben gives them someone who can strike out of nothing, his searing pace and jackhammer of a left foot having dragged Bayern Munich to the Champions League final. The defence is still to be thoroughly tested and will be far busier against either the technically brilliant Brazilians or the gung-ho Chileans. With Gregory van der Wiel at right-back a promising talent but with little experience and the ageing Giovanni van Bronckhorst at left-back, they could be severely tested by either Jean Beausejour and Alexis Sanchez on the Chile wings or the flying Brazilian full-backs, Michel Bastos and Maicon. Van Persie must also step up his game as the focal point of the side, with Sneijder carrying the team too often.
Netherlands – Stekelenburg, Van Der Wiel , Heitinga, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst, Van Bommel, De Jong, Sneijder (Afellay 90), Kuyt, Van Persie (Huntelaar 80), Robben (Elia 71)
Slovakia – Mucha, Pekarik, Skrtel, Zabavnik (Jakubko 87), Weiss, Stoch, Durica, Hamsik (Sapara 87), Kucka, Vittek, Jendrisek (Kopunek 71)