Individual Dutch Brilliance Dismantles Spain

The further you rise, the harder the fall. A result that felt like the end of a Spanish era owed everything to Dutch brilliance. Daniel Storey's got his breath back...

Last Updated: 14/06/14 at 09:40 Post Comment

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For almost the entire first half, it seemed as if Spain were beginning the defence of their World Cup crown with the consummate professionalism that has been their norm for close to six years. Xavi and Sergio Busquets were passing the ball with effortless excellence, Xabi Alonso was sniffing out any semblance of danger and Andres Iniesta was playing the sort of threatening through balls that would make a foul-mouthed dockworker blush. What then followed was a Dutch response so startling that it forced you to rub your eyes in disbelief.

Pre-match expectation and mid-match evidence had been turned on their head entirely - Spain's metronomic passing turned a bright shade of clockwork orange. Hold onto your hats, folks, for this may be one helluva month.

Coming into the tournament, the talk (not just on this site) was of a Spain side under-estimated by many supporters. Brazil, Argentina and Germany were being mentioned in hushed tones, but the Spaniards seemed to drift under the radar somewhat. A team with three consecutive major tournament victories had added a fearsome striker in Diego Costa to their ranks - what was there not to like? It's easy to be left with egg on face when results as unfathomable as this occur.

Spain were left desolate and disgraced despite maintaining control for close to half of the game. After half an hour, the defending champions had their lead, Stefan de Vrij's foolish slide allowing Costa to welcome the contact and Alonso to stroke home the resultant penalty. David Silva then missed a golden opportunity to double the lead after more silky passing filth from Iniesta. Never mind the Manchester City player simply being reproved for his profligacy, the Netherlands served up capital punishment.

Of course Spain have lost before, their 1-0 defeat to Switzerland at the same stage in 2010 a reminder of the dangers of writing off any team capable of sumptuous football, but that night they were hit by a sucker punch, unable to haul themselves level - this was so astonishingly different.

The fact that the last team to put five or more past Spain were Scotland in 1963 (and they have suffered such a loss competitively since the 1950 World Cup) indicates the humiliation suffered in Salvador. In 36 minutes they conceded two more goals than they did in their entire World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 campaigns combined. Like Barcelona being degraded by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final in 2013, this felt like a line in the sand, the entire dismantling of the very fibre of a system or approach.

Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Iker Casillas were the three most obvious culprits, the two central defenders lacking all sense of cohesion or positioning during the second half. The trio share 330 international caps but all looked out of their depth at various times and to various degrees, never more so than when Casillas allowed Robin van Persie to steal the ball following a loose touch and roll home his second. Perhaps making a player captain who has been dropped by both Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti wasn't such a good idea after all, and Diego Lopez may be sitting at home with a wry smile upon his face.

However, to simply mourn the deficiencies in Spain would be to do a disservice to a majestic reaction from the Dutch to falling behind. They swarmed over the Spanish midfield in waves, winning the ball high up the field in a manner in which their opponents would be proud. Ron Vlaar in central defence was immense in his shackling of Costa, ably assisted by De Vrij, who made more tackles and interceptions than any other player on the field. Costa's petulant headbutt on Bruno Martins Indi may have simply been a result of his intense frustration, but could still land him in hot water after the referee appeared to demonstrate that he had not seen the incident. Chelsea fans will be concerned that Aston Villa's captain handled their £32million man with such efficiency - they've had quite enough of misfiring Spanish forwards.

However, whilst this triumph will be sold by the Dutch camp as a sign of unity and team morale, this was a victory that owed much to individual brilliance. Firstly, Arjen Robben laid to rest the ghosts of the 2010 final (and the 2012 Champions League final) with the sort of display that opponents always fear he will inflict upon them. Robben is one of very few players about whom there seems nothing an opposition system or personnel can do to stop when he is in top form, the ball seemingly magnetised to his feet as if under a particularly powerful spell.

It was fitting that Thierry Henry was selected to describe Robben's second goal (and Netherlands' fourth), because the way in which defenders and goalkeeper were made to look entirely helpless was a hallmark of the Frenchman's greatness. His quote was fitting, too: "Sometimes you don't need words, you just have to watch."

Robin van Persie was also back to his majestic self, and the diving headed lob is now surely everyone's new favourite type of goal. Did we even know it existed before Friday? Van Persie's passionate celebration with manager Louis van Gaal will have given Manchester United fans a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, a sense that the striker from two seasons ago can now return.

"I think strikers need to feel loved," Rio Ferdinand said before the game. "Robin felt like the main man under Alex Ferguson, but when David Moyes came in I think he lost that. Moyes was saying how important Wayne Rooney was, and maybe Van Persie got pushed to the side a bit." He's right back in the spotlight now.

Finally, a word too for Daley Blind, who had a World Cup debut of dreams. Fantastically assured on the ball in midfield and yet with the bite to repel the toughest of opponents, his two long passes for Van Persie and Robben goals were as good as the finishes themselves. Philipp Lahm may have competition for his full-back-turned-midfielder crown.

The only problem with reaching the highest peak is that it gives you further to tumble, and Spain will now be battered and bruised after such a spectacular fall from grace. Can they really pick themselves up from this?

The Dutch, meanwhile, already have one foot in the knock-out stage, laying to rest the ghosts of a woeful European Championships two years ago. If you can inflict the world champions' heaviest defeat in over 50 years, the sky is surely the limit.

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