FIFA have changed the stage at which they will discount previous bookings, from the final group game, to the end of the quarter final. On the face of it, it’s a great idea, and sadly too late to prevent Louis Saha (2006), Michael Ballack (2002), Alessandro Costacurta (1994), Sergio Batista, Claudio Cannigia and Julio Olarticoechea (1990) from appearing in their respective World Cup finals, however there is a side effect. Whereas since 1994, there were times when individuals players needed to be careful at certain times, a team accumulating bookings in the group stages now need to be careful in the Round of 16 and the Quarter Finals. While it hasn’t reached the “heights” of 1990, where Cameroon had four players suspended for their Quarter Final game against England, and Argentina started the Semi Final against Italy with eight starters, and both playing substitues (as well as the unused Robert Nestor Sensini) on a yellow card, there is potential for a team to be wiped out by a fussy referee, This was one of those games, as twelve players started the game a booking away from being suspended for a game, and Spanish referee Alberto Undiano has certainly been card happy in his debut game – issuing nine yellow cards (two of which to Miroslav Klose) in the Germany-Serbia match.
Vladmir Weiss opened up an opportunity for Erik Jendrisek, who let fly from 20 yards out, only for it to go just over. It’s was just about the only time that Slovakia threatened from open play in the first half. A long ball from defence set Arjen Robben away, two Slovakian defenders showed him inside, Robben cut in, leaving the defenders in his wake, firing past the keeper from just outside the area. It was the best Dutch move of the half, and the worst thing that could have happened to the game. 1-0.
In fact, as far as the first half was concerned, it was the last thing that really happened. Arjen Robben was booked, very harshly, for a handball. The free kick was warranted, but the booking was not. Jan Kucka is also booked for a routine foul. Robin Van Perise has a couple of chances, but they’re either off target, or tamely at the keeper. For those watching, half time doesn’t come soon enough.
The second half starts a little brighter, but the Netherlands seem conscious of the card count, and Slovakia of their limitations. Robben’s early shot is saved by Mucha. Dirk Kuyt, Robben and Joris Mathijsen combine for a shot that hits Mucha in the face, and an unmarked Robert Vittek shoots straight at Maarten Stekelenburg, when he should have scored, and fires another chance over, but the next goal eventually comes on 84 minutes. Mucha comes out to meet a quick free kick, but Kuyt beats him to it, the keeper tries to get back in position, but Kuyt squares it to Sneijder, who has an empty net in front of him. He cannot miss. 2-0.
There’s one last chance for Slovakia, and it comes with the last kick of the game. A long range shot is deflected to Martin Jakubko. Jakubko leaves his leg trailing long enough for Stekelenburg – vainly trying to make a save on the floor – to bring him down. Technically it’s a foul, but Jakubko has played for it. Stekelenburg is booked, and Vittek slots the penalty away, and becomes the joint top scorer of the tournament, alongside Gonzalo Higuain, with his last contribution in South Africa. 2-1.
Slovakia depart, having reached the last sixteen in their first World Cup as an independent nation. They have thrilled and bored us in equal measures, and anyone who saw their victory against Italy is unlikely to forget it in a hurry, which is more than can be said for those of us who sat through their opening match against New Zealand. As for the Dutch, they have a tricky Quarter Final against South American opposition to come, with eight players on the yellow card tightrope. Of those, seven (Stekelenburg, Gregory van der Wiel, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Kuyt, Nigel de Jong and van Persie) are likely to start, with only Rafael van der Vaart likely to be on the bench. Let’s hope that in winning (and no, I’m not going to be neutral on this one, as I have the Oranje at 11-1 to win the tournament), they don’t pick up too many cards. After all, it would be a shame to see a rule designed at stopping individuals missing the final, become responsible for an entire team (and, seriously this time, any team) to miss the semi-finals as a result.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.