Netherlands have nothing to fear
SAO PAULO -- Three thoughts on the Netherlands' 2-0 win over Chile that secured the Dutch the top spot in Group B.
1. Netherlands march on with nothing to fear
A flawless group stage from the Dutch, but not exactly a flawless performance to complete it. This 2-0 win versus Chile gave them a 100 percent record, but after such a breakneck opening four games in Group B, the pace felt like it dropped considerably -- at least from everyone except Arjen Robben.
Of course, it's possible that it is all down to the diminished urgency of the circumstances in Sao Paulo. The "only" element at stake was the top spot, and with it the opportunity to avoid playing Brazil in the round of 16. Yet despite the disappointing nature of this match, both sides have provided enough already to suggest they shouldn't be too fearful of the hosts. Chile are still the bravest team in the competition in terms of their attacking; Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal has fashioned a true collective.
The identity of this match's opening goal scorer was indicative, as Leroy Fer's header gave Norwich City the club's first goal at a World Cup. Before the tournament, many might have justifiably seen the presence of a relegated Premier League player as further evidence of the team's lack of quality. Instead, it has only proved the progressive nature of van Gaal's management, and how he has already made them more than the sum of their parts.
In international tournaments, where very few teams have the cohesion of club sides, that can go a long way. Here, their defensive cohesion was clear, even if that made this a much less engaging game than had been expected.
2. Slowing of tempo hopefully not a precedent
They are the two teams that best epitomize the breakneck pace of this World Cup, but in this match, they ended up bringing it to something of a halt. This was a classic only in the sense it had the movement of a vintage car. Given how much Chile and Netherlands have set the pace, the hope is that this is not a sign of things to come.
Of course, it's also highly likely that this game was more sedate precisely because of their previous speed. Both teams are at their best when breaking brilliantly into space, but neither exactly makes a habit of offering that up behind them. Netherlands particularly sat back, allowing Chile up to 79 percent possession by the 20th minute, and often turning their back three into a back five.
It said much that the South American side's best efforts -- at least until a late rally -- were from set-pieces. Even there, though, they tried the unpredictable. Balls were not swung into the box. They were played out in anticipation of another sweeping move. That never quite came off. The hope is this more restrained game doesn't rub off on the rest of the tournament.
3. Speedy Robben is something of a rarity
It may not have been his most stunning performance of the World Cup so far, but the wonder is that Robben is still able to play at the searing pace that offered this otherwise laboured match its only flashes of excitement -- not least the brilliant assist that sealed the game. His runs retain the capacity to energise an entire stadium.
In that, Robben is something of a rarity. There are not too many primarily pace-based players who, at 30 years of age, manage to maintain the same speed as when they blazingly first broke through. Most of them tend to suffer too many injuries, too much wear and tear. You only have to consider the cases of Ryan Giggs and Michael Owen. Both had to adapt their games by their late 20s, precisely because of the problems they had with their hamstrings and other ailments.
That has not been the case with Robben, who is still as rampant as his younger days at PSV Eindhoven and Chelsea. Of course, it was during that spell at Stamford Bridge that the winger earned something of a reputation for refusing to play when feeling any kind of twinge. It effectively cost him his career at Chelsea, as Jose Mourinho eventually moved to sell him to Real Madrid, but may have preserved his pace.
Here, he played one of the biggest parts in keeping intact Netherlands' perfect group record. Robben was the only Dutch attacker regularly putting the Chilean defence on the edge, and the one that provided the cross to wrap up the victory. Four years after Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas frustrated him in the 2010 World Cup final, Robben may be raring up to be this tournament's outstanding performer.