With the game scoreless, Dutch winger Arjen Robben was closing in on what looked to be a certain goalscoring opportunity. But rather than pull the trigger and put the Netherlands a goal ahead, the Bayern Munich player was illegally impeded by Mexico’s Miguel Layún, but the referee waved away his very credible appeals for a penalty. It was all too familiar for the Dutch, but unlike four years ago, the footballing gods intervened.
To say this was a sparkling Dutch performance would be an overstatement, but their 2-1 victory is certainly one that coach Louis van Gaal would be proud of, given the conditions. In the sweltering Fortaleza heat, the Dutch created some fantastic opportunities but struggled to control the game completely. What’s more, Mexico looked more than capable of halting the waves of Oranje attacks, and were also far from shy when it came to threatening Jasper Cillessen’s goal.
In the opening minutes, the Dutch received a major setback when their combative midfielder Nigel De Jong was substituted after appearing to pull his groin. De Jong, who infamously stayed on the field after pole-axing Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final four years ago, has become a crucial part of this Dutch side, and his exit left a noticeable hole in the center of van Gaal’s midfield.
With Bruno Martins replacing De Jong, which was far from a direct positional swap, the Dutch appeared to struggle as Mexico used its creativity and attacking prowess to exploit the forced change.
As the Dutch re-adapted, it was clear that even if the referee might call for water breaks in the 104 degree heat, their opponents had no plans to give them any respite. Former Fulham defender Carlos Salcido continued to break forward and tested Cillessen from a distance while the impressive Giovani Dos Santos terrorized the Dutch backline and forced a smart save from the Dutch goalkeeper from an extremely tight angle.
The Dutch appeared to be struggling in the heat, although it didn’t appear to be faze Robben, whose occasional bursts of pace unsettled the Mexican defense.
In a rare Dutch counter-attack, Robben burst down the left-wing and found himself in the Mexican box only to be scythed down by Layún in what looked to be a certain penalty. Much to the dismay of the thousands of Dutch fans — and relief of Mexico’s sizable cohort — the Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca waved away the protests.
Although Proenca’s scandalous decision was a major setback for the Dutch, they improved in the second half but still fell behind after a wondrous strike from Dos Santos. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder had been causing problems for the Dutch midfield throughout and his sweet 25-yard strike beyond Cillessen will be used in highlights at the tournament’s conclusion.
After falling behind, the Dutch slowly took control in the second half, although Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa again played inspired with inspired courage. But with two minutes to go, Holland finally scored the equalizer.
Mexico failed to clear a cross from a Dutch corner kick, and Galatasaray’s Wesley Sneijder hammered the ball into the back of the net. The Dutch, however, weren’t done just yet.
With just minutes left in stoppage time, Mexico’s captain Rafael Márquez appeared to bring down Robben in the box for a penalty. Pundits and eagle-eyed soccer fans will debate for weeks whether Márquez actually tripped Robben, but either way Klaas-Jan Huntelaar stepped up and broke Mexican hearts. The Dutch are on their way to the quarterfinals.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the US, covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. He is providing commentary for the Daily Caller on a regular basis throughout the World Cup. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt