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Next
 Posted by Raphael Honigstein
Jun 29, 2014

Unloved Huntelaar answers the call

Netherlands team train in Estadio President Vargas instead of the match stadium ahead of their game against Mexico on Sunday. Coach Louis van Gaal pays tribute to their opponents' playing style.

During his time at FC Bayern Munich, Louis van Gaal was dubbed the "Tulip General" by the Bavarian tabloids. They soon found out that he liked different flowers. "Death or gladioli" is how he would refer to knock-out games. (Apparently winners are traditionally showered with gladioli in the Netherlands).

For most of the 90 minutes in Fortaleza, it looked as if his Oranje would have to settle for a bouquet of Chrysanthemums. They came closer to sporting death at this World Cup than most anticipated ahead of the last-16 clash with Mexico, until the game turned on three decisive interventions by three big names.

Wesley Sneijder, a ghost of his former self for most of the match in the inhumane heat, popped up to slam home a half-volley after a corner to equalise two minutes from the end of normal time. The tireless Arjen Robben then won a penalty by drawing a foul from Rafael Marquez deep into injury time. The centre-back hardly connected with the Dutchman's foot but referee Pedro Proenca was within his rights to award the spot-kick. (Even the attempt to trip up an opponent is punishable, according to the Laws of the Game, and Marquez had only himself to blame after taking an uncontrolled swing at the 30-year-old. In any case, Robben should have had at least one penalty earlier in the game).

Huntelaar repaid van Gaal's faith with a crucial late burst vs. Mexico in the round of 16.
Huntelaar repaid van Gaal's faith with a crucial late burst vs. Mexico in the round of 16.

Then the third man stepped up. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar had only come on in the 76th minute and his introduction for Robin van Persie was an admission of sorts. Everyone knew that he would see any action in Brazil only if the Netherlands were totally desperate for a goal and prepared to dispense with all stylistic niceties. "Usually, I take the penalties [in the absence of van Persie]," Robben said after the game. "But I had won it and Klaas-Jan was still fresh. He really is a class striker. That was his time. And it was thoroughly deserved."

It's arguable just how much the Dutch did actually deserve to advance to the quarterfinals. They looked sluggish at the back, had no creative spark in the middle and couldn't provide much service to Robben and van Persie. "We had possession but the build-up was not good," said van Gaal.

But in football you don't always get what you deserve. You get what you can take from the opposition. "You could say that we got lucky today or you could say that we never gave up," Carlo Ancelotti said after Real Madrid's Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid, when Sergio Ramos had rescued his team with a last-minute equaliser. The same was true of the Netherlands in Fortaleza's Arena Castelao.

NetherlandsNetherlands
MexicoMexico
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Match 51
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Van Persie praised the "great team spirit" and psychological strength the team showed in coming back after Giovani Dos Santos' 48th minute goal. The Dutch spent virtually the entire second half chasing that 1-0 lead in sunshine so punishing that even the supporters inside the stadium had to vacate their seats to look for shade. Spurned on by Robben, they never let their heads drop.

As you'd expect, van Gaal also had a big role to play. His 5-3-2 system was stretched to its very limits by El Tri especially after Nigel de Jong, van Gaal's enforcer in the middle of the park, had to leave the pitch with a muscle injury after just nine minutes. "He will have to have a scan but I think it will be difficult for him to make the quarterfinal," said the Bondscoach. "You know it's not nothing when De Jong can't play anymore".

The Elftal lacked that combative edge around their penalty area; it was perhaps no coincidence that Dos Santos ran into that very same space and was allowed to unleash a shot that curled past Jasper Cillessen.

- Elko Born: Sneijder finally steps up for the Dutch
- Andrea Canales: El Tri's dream dies in late defeat
- Jeff Carlisle: Arjen Robben plays to his strengths
- Watch: How the Dutch beat Mexico (U.S. only)

In his 100th game for the national team, Dirk Kuyt won plaudits for his work ethic and flexibility. His heat map would have made for interesting reading. The 33-year-old veteran started as a left wing-back. Van Gaal moved him onto the left flank, then made him the second striker and then he became a winger again.

Kuyt had to move around to accommodate Huntelaar, the striker who won the match by coolly dispatching the penalty. The 30-year-old had missed his last two spot-kicks for Schalke in the Bundesliga; he later admitted that he was caught in two minds. "There was pressure on me. I know that keepers often chose a corner but I didn't have the b---- to shoot down the middle," he said. He put the ball into the corner instead. In goal, Guillermo Ochoa had no chance. "I dreamt about this for so long," Huntelaar added. "It was a pure adrenaline rush. This is the best drug there is."

With his team on the ropes vs. Mexico, van Gaal took risks and was handsomely rewarded.
With his team on the ropes vs. Mexico, van Gaal took risks and was handsomely rewarded.

It was some introduction and not just for his goal. Huntelaar had cut an isolated, somewhat frustrated figure among all his happy, relaxed teammates over the past two weeks. Not even van Persie's suspension against Chile bought him a few minutes on the pitch. Of all the strikers and forwards in the squad, the "Hunter" looked like the one that van Gaal was least inclined to let loose. "He is only a poacher, he doesn't create," a Dutch journalist said last week, seemingly explaining Huntelaar's low standing within the camp.

That made van Gaal's 76th minute call even bigger. It's one thing to take off your captain (van Persie) when you need a goal; another to replace him with the very player who was coveting his place during the last Euros and tried to move heaven and earth to get it off him.

If that throw of the dice had failed, the fall-out would have been considerable and may have been felt far beyond Brazil. A reminder: Van Gaal will coach van Persie at Manchester United next season. The 62-year-old didn't care about the political implications, however. Yes, he got lucky, but he did so by making the sort of brave decision that lesser national managers are often not prepared to take.

Sneijder's intervention will also help galvanize the Dutch as their World Cup run continues.
Sneijder's intervention will also help galvanize the Dutch as their World Cup run continues.

Coaching Portugal at the 2004 Euros, Luiz Felipe Scolari pulled the iconic Luis Figo when it became clear to him the player didn't have any energy left with 15 minutes to go of their quarterfinal versus England. Sven-Göran Eriksson was faced with a similar problem in the shape of David Beckham but couldn't bring himself to make the substitution. A tired Beckham huffed and puffed during extra time and missed England's first penalty in the shootout. Portugal went through.

Mexico clearly and brutally exposed the limitations of this Dutch side, but the match also showcased a unity of purpose that better, more talented Dutch teams of the past have been sorely missing. With every win and with every reserve player coming on doing his bit, this feeling can only grow. Success has a habit of bringing everyone together.

"We all feel that we can be world champions. It really is possible," a delirious Robben said after the match. "I also see the other teams and, with all due respect, we can do it. A few large countries are already at home." The Netherlands might not be the biggest team left, in pure footballing terms. But they're certainly still alive -- and very much kicking.

Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is the author of "Englischer Fussball."