Into the quarter-finals then, and now it starts getting serious.This was the first clash between two teams with serious winning credentials – or at least, Brazil’s pedigree was beyond dispute. Maybe there were still some doubts about the Netherlands, coming into this game, for all their long unbeaten run and their hundred percent records both in qualifying and in the group phases it still remained to be seen how they’d fare against top class opposititon. And to be honest, for all that they won this extraodinary match, I’m still not entirely sure. The game was turned on its head by a series of critical Brazilian errors in the second half, in a game they looked to have well in control, and they’ll go home wondering quite how it happened.
Just for once I thought I’d get a bit of a headstart on my match report by writing the first chunk of it at half-time. It looks a bit silly now, but I hate to see my beautiful prose go to waste so here, for posterity, are my half-time thoughts on just how good Brazil looked.
On this display, Brazil’s status as favourites has to be taken seriously. Dunga has them better organised than some previous Brazilian sides, built from the back on two solid centre-backs, two fullbacks who are comfortable in possession and like to get forward, two holding midefielders with Felippe Melo in particular pulling the strings, and allowing Kaka and a very lively Robinho to provide more than adequate support for Luis Fabiano up front. It remains to be seen how they’ll cope with a serious challenge, particularly down the flanks, but Holland have not been able to offer it and Robben, their main danger man, has been closed down very quickly any time he’s found himself with the ball at his feet. Before the game I was expecting this to be a close match, now I’m wondering how I ever imagined that a side containing Dirk Kuyt could provide much of a threat to this Brazilian team.
So much for half-time analysis. I’ve got this football-reporting lark just about sussed, I think.
As far as incident goes, Brazil were 1-0 up by that stage. Robinho had already had a goal chalked off as early as the eighth minute for a marginal offside call against Dani Alves, but two minutes later he opened the scoring, converting a beautifully simple piece of football. Fabiano dropped deep, taking one of the centre-backs with him (Heitinga, I think), Robinho darted into the gap, chased belatedly by Robben, and was picked out from the halfway line by a deliciously weighted pass from Melo. Played and ball intersected perfectly on the edge of the area, and Robinho swept if first time past a helpless ‘keeper. Gorgeous. A poor goal to concede, no doubt, and some of the pundits were sniffy enough to call it poor defending, but I’m willing to bet you can find the same defensive mistake made man a time in any match you cared to watch if you looked carefully enough – how often do you see it exploited with such an exquisite pass and run?
Brazil remained on top for the rest of the half with runs from Robinho, Maicon and Melo all causing the Dutch defence problems. Their best chance to extend the lead fell to Kaka, who took a Fabiano lay-off in his stride and curled a shot towards the top corner which Stekelenburg did well to claw away for a corner. The Ducth had no serious chances in the first half, bar perhaps an easily-saved Sneijder free-kick, but they dug in and clung on, and Brazil’s momentum wasn’t converted into that many chances.
Nonetheless, it was hard to see how they were going to turn the game around, until the 53rd minute when Robben won a free kick out on the right touch line. Sneijder took it quickly, exchanged passes with Robben, then sent a deep cross into the area. There was no orange shirt challenging for it, but Melo went to head it, while Julio Cesar came out to punch. Somehow they contrived to make an almighty hash of it between them – Cesar missed his punch, the ball skimmed off the back of Melo’s head and dropped into the net to hand Holland an unlikely equaliser. If it evened up the score, it also seemed to even up the flow of the game to an extent, Holland started to come into it more and van Persie had a snap shot go wide from the edge of the area a few minutes later. But Brazil still looked the team more likely, Dani Alves sent a shot wide of the far post before Kaka came closer again with a shot that drifted just wide of the top corner with the ‘keeper stranded.
And then, over the next few minutes, the roof fell in. Holland won a corner, Kuyt flicked it on at the near post in textbook fashion, and Sneijder was left with an easy header to make it 2-1. And if we wanted to know how Brazil would respond, we got our answer within minutes when Melo lost his discipline and was given a straight red for a very ugly stamp on Robben’s thigh. Only then, to be honest, did I realise that Holland really might win this, and in fact they saw out the last fifteen minutes against ten men with very few scares. Other than the referee momentarily pulling out the wrong colour of card to show to Ooijer for kicking the ball away, the most nervous moment came when they themselves missed a corner at the front post, and it flashed across goal with no Brazilian attacking the right space at the right moment. Brazil’s swagger and athleticism of the first half was by now a forgotten memory and they had nothing more left to give but panic – it didn’t work and they might easily have been caught on the break by Kuyt or Sniejder. And deep into injury time, when another high ball into the box was easily gathered by Stekelenburg, a straighforward punt back down the field found three Dutch players facing a single defender in the penalty area. They seemed as surprised by this development as anyone, delayed, and chance to really rub some noses in it was gone. It didn’t matter, there were only seconds remaining and soon enough the final whistle brought an end to Brazil’s World Cup.
Doubtless the recriminations back in Rio will make England’s post-mortem look tame. I don’t really buy this line that Brazilians just want to see their team play with style – they want to win and I’m sure there’s enough of them with enough savvy to realise that the days when you could win a World Cup with gung ho football are gone. But that’s all good and well if it works, it’s not going to cut much ice for Dunga’s defence having capitulated in such fashion in the quarter-finals to a team unlikely to be viewed as worldbeaters. I can only wish him good luck when he steps off the ‘plane.
And what, then, of Holland? They still didn’t persuade me they’re a good enough side to win a Wold Cup. I’ve no doubt the other teams still involved are delighted to see Brazil go out and will feel that Holland are more beatable. But who knows? With Uruguay or Ghana to come in the semi-final this half of the draw has opened up very invitingly, with Germany, Argentina and Spain all battling out on the other side. It’s a terrific opportunity for someone, I suppose it might as well be the Dutch. I just can’t say it’s a thought that particularly excites me.
Thanks once again to Historical Football Kits for the use of the graphics.