SALVADOR -- No one saw it coming, but the Netherlands gained a bit of payback for the 2010 final by defeating Spain 5-1 -- the worst loss ever for a World Cup champion.
1. RvP, Robben reward Van Gaal
Switch to 5-3-2 when defending, 3-4-3 when attacking and let your superstars make the difference. It's not quite that simple, but Louis Van Gaal made it seem that way in the 5-1 spanking of the world champions, their worst World Cup result since the last time they were in this part of the globe and the host nation beat them 6-1 in 1950.
You can say games hinge on incidents and episodes and, perhaps, if David Silva had put away that chance to put Spain 2-0 up this game may have taken a different turn. But Van Gaal looked calm -- or as calm as he could possibly look given that he's Van Gaal -- even in the first half hour, when Spain were creating the chances and some of his youngsters ( Daryl Janmaat, Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan De Vrij) looked ripe to be picked apart by Vicente Del Bosque's tiki-taka.
Van Gaal kept faith and his stars rewarded him. From Robin Van Persie's outrageous leap and header for the equalizer (get used to it, you'll see it again and again, it's already next to Dennis Bergkamp's in Oranje World Cup lore) to Arjen Robben's delicious control, befuddling of Gerard Pique and strike past Iker Casillas. Both, mind you, set up by direct, diagonal balls from Daley Blind, the kind of north-south football Van Gaal -- supposedly -- turns his nose at. (He doesn't; he does what is needed.)
The rest was window-dressing. Iker Casillas, possibly fouled by Van Persie, flapping at the free kick for the third goal, Casillas -- again - failing to control a backpass for the fourth and the most classic of counterattacks from Robben. What mattered was the first two. And, here, as well as the players, you need to credit the manager, who found a way to put his players in a position to exact maximum damage.
2. Dutch benefit from the rebound effect
Call it the World Cup pick-me-up. We've seen it happen so many times. Players, particularly veterans, who miss large chunks of the season and have a relatively off-year stealing the show on the biggest stage of all.
Van Persie missed two long stretches of the season with various injuries. When he did play he was inconsistent, at least relative to the heroics of the previous two seasons when he notched a total of 56 league goals. You can find plenty of different reasons beyond his injuries: starting with the Old Trafford horror show and the difficulties in transitioning from the Sir Alex Ferguson era right down to the fact that a lot of his teammates simply played poor, uninspired football.
Against Spain, he was magnificent, scoring two goals, providing a steady outlet in the front three (not easy to do alongside two unorthodox players like Wesley Sneijder and Robben) and seemingly getting stronger in his terrorization of Sergio Ramos and Pique as the game wore on.
But the same principle could also be applied on the Spanish end. Xavi also had a tough season. He, too, saw his team's seasonal objectives waste away. And, like Van Persie, he should have been a difference-maker in the first half, setting up both Diego Costa's run that resulted in the penalty and the glorious chance David Silva squandered.(He'd waste another one later too, this time set up by Andres Iniesta.)
3. Spain must re-group now
Spain didn't just get a bloody nose, they got a full-body bludgeoning in terms of pride and result. The regrouping must start now. Del Bosque will have some very painful decisions to make, he'll have to look the guys who won him the World Cup in the eye and determine who's in and who's out.
That means Casillas, Pique, but also Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and others, most of whom were poor. And he'll need to play psychologist to figure out whether Costa is in the right frame of mind to continue playing in this World Cup. He was subjected to continuous abuse -- par for the course -- and, while we don't know what he was thinking, he did look like a man affected when he headbutted Bruno Martins Indi.
But before you write them off completely, remember that they lost the opener in 2010 as well (albeit after dominating Switzerland, unlike today). And we know what happened next.