Three quick reactions to the 3-2 win for Netherlands over Australia in Group B.
1. Louis van Gaal likes a red herring ... but so do the opposition
The Dutch manager had sent Aston Villa defender Ron Vlaar to train with the reserves in the last practice session at Porto Alegre; Dynamo Kiev striker Jeremain Lens had played with the first XI in his place. It was a clear indication that Netherlands would switch back to their traditional 4-3-3 system with two wingers, but alas, Van Gaal was sending deliberately false signals. An hour before kickoff, Vlaar's name was back in the lineup, and the Dutch came out playing the same 3-5-2 system (5-3-2 without the ball) that worked so brilliantly against world champions Spain.
If that looked like a counterintuitive measure, it certainly helped to bring out the best of Arjen Robben again. The Bayern Munich winger had complete freedom to take up any position he liked; the goal came when he burst through from an inside-left position -- his less favourite side of the pitch -- but his pace enabled him to widen the angle for a low, driven shot into Australia keeper Maty Ryan's left corner. Van Persie, a more static player, by contrast, struggled to find space and did not have any meaningful involvement (apart from a glancing header) throughout the first half.
Just like the Spanish before them, the Australians targeted the "half spaces" between the wing-backs and the back three. Vicente del Bosque's side, however, found themselves passing into these spaces and out again, without making up any real ground, whereas the Australians' much more direct (and often aerial) approach proved much more fruitful.
Tim Cahill's goal, a fabulous volley, took advantage of exactly that kind uncertainty on the right-hand side of the Dutch defence. Daley Blind failed to win a tackle, Bruno Martins Indi stepped up to confront Ryan McGowan, but found himself 20 metres ahead of his back three. Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij failed to deal with the run of Cahill, who connected beautifully with McGowan's cross. Perhaps, in hindsight, playing a 4-3-3 would have been the better ploy from Van Gaal.
2. Where is Wesley Sneijder?
The Galatasaray playmaker had been less convincing than his two co-stars in attack against Spain. The Dutch game, with so many long balls from Blind, had literally bypassed him to a large extent. In the first half in Porto Alegre, it was the same story. Sneijder hardly touched the ball. Mile Jedinak and Matt McKay were able to double up on him because the Australian back four didn't need them to help out in wide areas against the only two advanced Dutch players.
Van Gaal changed his system to a 4-3-3 in the second half, as Memphis Depay replaced the injured Martins Indi but played on the left flank up front; Blind and Daryl Janmaat moved back to make it a back four. As a result, Sneijder immediately found a bit more space in the centre, as Australia had to worry about the flanks, and Van Persie, now the central striker, provided a third reference point for Sneijder in close proximity.
Sneijder had his first shot on goal saved by Ryan but then Oranje were suddenly behind through Jedinak's penalty (for a harsh handball on Janmaat.) Van Persie's thunderous strike and Depay's solo effort (which should have been saved) turned the game around once more, but Sneijder's anonymity will be a worry for the Oranje's chances of going deeper in this tournament.
3. Tim Cahill goes out with a bang -- and a whimper
The 34-year-old's wonderful equalising goal is destined to become an all-time World Cup classic. For the New York Red Bulls player, it was his fifth goal in his third finals; this all-time record is unlikely to be bettered by any other Australian player in the near future.
Unfortunately, Cahill's fantastic volley and historic achievement were tempered by Australia's second loss in the competition, a result that made qualification for the next round all but impossible. Worse for him, however, was the fact that his late tackle on Martins Indi just before half-time brought a well-deserved yellow card that will see him miss the last game against Spain through suspension. Australia coach Ange Postecoglou substituted Cahill 20 minutes from time for 22-year-old Ben Halloran, which made for a somewhat inglorious end to his World Cup career. The Australians will miss him against Spain and beyond. Sadly, Cahill will rue the fact that a needless tackle on the halfway line cost him his chance to play one last time at this level against the world champions.