Australia gain belief, but no points from Group B
Before the World Cup started, Australia boss Ange Postecoglou promised his nation it would witness dynamic, quality performances from the national team, despite the difficulty of their group. After a fine display for 60 minutes against Chile, he went on to state we can now aim for more than just "honourable losses." He, along with his team, so nearly delivered on both fronts against a shell-shocked Netherlands in Porto Alegre. Belief played the role of decider as the Socceroos went down with a fight, losing 3-2 after leading their more fancied opponents midway through the second half.
Australia were dealt a blow in the lead-up to the game, though, with central midfielder Mark Milligan being ruled out with a hamstring injury. That opened the way for Matt McKay to join skipper Mile Jedinak in the middle of the pitch, suiting the Socceroos' heavy pressing game. The Dutch started with the same XI that tore Spain apart, meanwhile, but were unable to find the same rhythm as the Australians sought to break up play early on.
In an impressive first-half showing, Australia's only lapse in concentration allowed Arjen Robben to break free and score when one-on-one with goalkeeper Mat Ryan. Jedinak and McKay were not close enough to Wesley Sneijder after the change in possession, while defender Alex Wilkinson saw Robben wriggle goal-side of him.
However, those who rose at 2 a.m. AEST in Australia would not have to wait long for a response. And from who else but Tim Cahill. Watching a delightful early ball from Ryan McGowan, who played in the unaccustomed position of right-back, the New York Red Bulls star blazed a sublime left-footed volley in off the bar to restore parity. It surely rates as one of the goals of the tournament so far, and further enhances Cahill's status as one of the best big-game players around. Incredible chances to Mark Bresciano and Matt Spiranovic then came and went, and that became a crucial point of difference later in the match.
Cahill, though, will miss the final Group B clash against Spain after picking up a yellow card for a challenge on Bruno Martins Indi, who landed awkwardly and was stretchered off the pitch. That, in turn, forced the Dutch to switch to their traditional 4-3-3 formation right on the stroke of half-time, which altered the course of the match in the second stanza.
Australian hopes of an improbable result lifted dramatically when Jedinak converted a penalty on 54 minutes, though. In fairness, the handball decision was harsh on defender Daryl Janmaat, but it was reward for the confidence and endeavour shown by Oliver Bozanic fresh from coming off the bench.
Australia continued to create wonderful chances, with Cahill, Mathew Leckie and Tommy Oar having opportunities to extend the lead. But, ultimately, it was the class of the Dutch superstars and the impact of Memphis Depay in the new-look formation that proved telling.
Van Persie and Depay scored as the Socceroos' defence lost its shape, resulting in the Netherlands' first win over Australia on the international stage. Cahill and Bresciano made early exits, paving the way for Australia's youngsters to become heroes and gain a well-earned point. None, however, could quite grasp that opportunity.
Still, Australia can hold their heads high after the contest. As with their clash against Chile, they stood up to their high-profile opponents and showed the world the brand of football their compatriots have been so desperate to see. Ironically, it took an injury to force the Dutch back into their time-honoured style -- something many in the Netherlands have been calling for -- before they started to gain the ascendency.
The next step for the Socceroos is to allow this new generation of players to develop into a group that can sustain that sort of performance for 90 minutes. Make no mistake, it will take time. Many years, in fact. And there will be similar near misses and harsh lessons along the way. But if this performance against the Netherlands didn't make us -- and the world -- believe in the future of Australian football, nothing will.