We spend the league season hearing that winning without playing well is the mark of champions. If that is the case in a World Cup then we might as well give the Netherlands the trophy now and be done with it. For a fourth game in a row Holland were unremarkable, struggling for that trademark Dutch fluidity, yet they ran out comfortable winners against Slovakia.
The Netherlands’ stodgy play in the group games was excusable as they awaited the return from injury of Arjen Robben. This was the Bayern Munich winger’s first start at the World Cup and he made his presence felt inside 20 minutes.
Slovakia had a throw-in deep in the Dutch half but it was intercepted and played to Dirk Kuyt, who curled a 40-yard pass up the field to set Robben tearing down the right wing. Apparently playing a left-footed player down the right wing is easy to defend against: the left-back can let the winger cut inside him safe in the knowledge a central midfielder will come over to close him down. No-one appears to have told Robben this and he left three players for dead before driving low just inside the near post.
Every time Robben got the ball the Netherlands looked dangerous, but they only looked like scoring if he kept it. Once again Robin Van Persie disappointed, nodding a free header down into a defender’s shoulder early on, running at the defence and firing a tame shot straight at Mucha.
Wesley Sneijder continued to struggle as well. Netherlands were clearly the better side but were moving the ball around far too slowly and but for Robben being on a vastly different level to his opponents, Slovakia seemed comfortable enough in defence and were creating a few opportunities of their own. Marek Hamsik, the much-fancied Napoli midfielder who started the tournament poorly but has improved with every game, struck a fierce shot from 25 yards that went just wide.
It was far from the usual Dutch fare. Mark Van Bommel shanked a freekick so badly it went out for a throw. Up the other end Jendrosek did much the same from open play. But the Netherlands did improve in the second half, with more pace and purpose to their attacks.
First Arjen Robben did his party trick again, cutting in from the right and outpacing two defenders, shooting low to the far post this time, Mucha at full stretch to push it away. Robben then played in Robin Van Persie whose shot stung Mucha’s face. He was in the wars moments later when he punched clear a Van Persie free kick only to get clattered by Dirk Kuyt.
Slovakia’s best two chances of an equaliser were seconds apart. Miroslav Stoch did a passable impression of Arjen Robben, cutting in from the left onto his right and lashing a shot from range that Stekelenberg had to tip over. Soon after Robert Vittek found himself unmarked on the penalty spot but the keeper saved again.
Bert van Marwijk withdrew Arjen Robben after seventy minutes – and presumably had him transported immediately to the cotton wool facility in which the injury-prone winger spends his downtime – and Van Persie followed soon after, replaced by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Five minutes from time Sneijder made sure of victory and a place in the quarter finals. Dirk Kuyt rounded off another typically hard-working display by beating the keeper to a quick free kick over the top, nodding it past him and rolling the ball square for Sneijder to sidefoot home.
Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss appeared to throw in the towel at this point, using his remaining substitutions to give the more junior members of his squad some time on the pitch, but no one told his players. The game was three minutes into added time when Martin Jakubko was tripped by the keeper and the referee awarded a penalty.
Vittek smashed it home but it was the last kick of the match, and Slovakia head home having exceeded all expectations in their first major tournament. The Netherlands now have just three days to find their form before a mouth-watering quarter final clash with Brazil.