Netherlands reaches potential, World Cup finals
CAPE TOWN, South Africa – A Dutch treat: The Netherlands is in the World Cup final.
Long wasteful with its soccer talent, the Netherlands sure has found the right touch in this tournament.
Dutch stars Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben scored three minutes apart in the second half as the Netherlands beat Uruguay 3-2 Tuesday night to advance to their first championship match since losing in 1978 to Argentina.
Winners of all six games in South Africa, the Oranje will face either Germany or Spain in Sunday’s title game at Soccer City in Johannesburg. The Netherlands lost its other appearance in the final, to West Germany in 1974.
Both of those title-game defeats came during the golden period of Dutch soccer, and in the opposition’s homeland. No such worries this time, and no country outside of Africa has had as much fan support as the Netherlands.
Inside Green Point Stadium it looked like a Florida orange grove. Outside, a Netherlands fan in a blue and white bodysuit stood on stilts and played a vuvuzela – badly. It was about the only thing that didn’t measure up for the Dutch.
And a tournament that looked like a South American fiesta early on will end in a European showdown for the second straight World Cup. Sneijder and Robben made sure of that.
Sneijder’s goal came somewhat unexpectedly because Uruguay had shut down the Dutch offense for much of the second half. His left-footed shot from just inside the penalty area barely ticked the leg of defender Maximiliano Pereira and, with Robin van Persie almost deflecting it again, it skidded past goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.
Then Robben sent a cross from Dirk Kuyt past a flat-footed Muslera with a brilliant header as Robben was leaping away from the net. His teammates piled on in an Oranje Crush celebration, and Robben came up from it with mud on his forehead, a smile on his face – and the knowledge that Netherlands was ahead 3-1 and likely headed to the championship match.
For good measure, Robben blew kisses to the fans.
Uruguay was without dangerous striker Luis Suarez, whose handball on the goal line in the final seconds of extra time against Ghana saved his team in the quarterfinals. He drew a red card for that, and spent his suspension on the bench watching his undermanned teammates come up just short.
Pereira made the Netherlands sweat with a goal in injury time, and Stekelenburg’s late save preserved the biggest Dutch win in decades. The Dutch have now won 10 straight and are unbeaten in their last 25 games.
Robben was replaced late in the match, and at the final whistle he fell flat to the turf as he ran back onto the pitch. Mark van Bommel hustled over to where the ball came to rest, picked it up and hugged it. His teammates then began a joyous stroll around the field, some of them barechested, as the vuvuzelas blared and Dutch flags waved in the stands.
The Jabulani ball Van Bommel grabbed has been a source of criticism for its unpredictability, particularly the way it can soar. When Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, a true defensive halfback, puts one in from 30 yards off the far goalpost, well, let the debate begin again.
The Dutch captain gave his team the lead in the 18th minute, and the Oranje pressed for more, but when they let up slightly on defense, the superb Diego Forlan pounced. He was given far too much open space in the middle of the field and, from just under 30 yards, his left-footed drive went off goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg’s hand and into the net.
Stekelenburg was screened just enough by defender John Heitinga and didn’t get a good view of the ball until it was too late.
While several Dutch players threw up their hands in frustration, Forlan celebrated his fourth goal of the tournament with a suave wave of his arm while Suarez leaped off the bench in jubilation.
Van Bronckhorst was in his accustomed role early in the second half when he headed a long shot by Alvaro Pereira away from the net after Stekelenburg was caught out chasing a stray back pass. And the Dutch defense was under siege in the final minutes as Uruguay sought to tie it.
The Celeste will head to Saturday’s third-place game, not bad for the last team to qualify.
But not nearly what they wanted. The Dutch have that.
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