I remain unconvinced by Netherlands. It's madness, I know.
The Dutch opened up their tournament with a shocking demolition of twice-reigning European Champions and reigning World Champions Spain. They tore Spain apart—it was like watching someone throw a porterhouse to a half-dozen junkyard dogs. Spain had no answer for the clever but deceptively simple Dutch approach. The Dutch placed long balls from wide positions over the top and counted on their pace upfront to undo an aging Spanish back line. And it worked. Twice. One free kick, one moment of madness from Iker Casillas (whose stock has dropped as much as any player at this tournament), and one piece of brilliance from Arjen Robben later, we'd witnessed the most improbable of results. Prematch odds on a 5-1 victory by the Dutch were 500/1. Irish bookmaker Paddy Power confirmed they'd only received 10 correct bets. If there ever was an outlying result, this is it.
Against Chile, the Dutch systematically frustrated and stifled the opposition's attack. The midfield three of Wesley Sneijder, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Nigel de Jong—who has been Netherlands unsung hero—were dogged in their man-marking and essentially shut down all activity in the middle of the park. Chile, who needed a result to win the group, chased the game, ran out of gas and were undone by a diagonal cross—something they struggled to deal with all tournament—and a stoppage time counter attack which was finished off by super-sub Memphis Depay. Without Arturo Vidal, who was rested for the knock-out stage, La Roja registered only a single shot on target.
For me, it's the 3-2 result against Australia where most of the red flags about the Dutch are raised. Credit is due to Australia who played fearlessly against Netherlands and responded to going down a goal by scoring almost immediately after the restart—Tim Cahill's volley is already shortlisted for best goal of the tournament. That said, the Dutch back three simply didn't work against the Socceroos. Australia found space in the channels to connect passes and challenged the inexperienced Dutch back line with three in attack. Louis van Gaal's switch to a more traditional Dutch-style 4-3-3—a style van Gaal himself helped pioneer—at the half didn't exactly work wonders either, but it stabilized the team enough to get a result. Three points against Australia should never have been in doubt but, were it not for a bit of sub-par goalkeeping by Australia's Mathew Ryan, the Dutch could have left this game with an underwhelming draw.
And that's what concerns me about Netherlands—they are flat track bullies with a lead but not particularly convincing when tasked with playing on the front foot. The high-line the Dutch employed against Spain was incredibly risky—it nearly back-fired. Had David Silva shown a bit more composure in front of goal (or a bit less flair) the game could have easily entered the half 2-0 to Spain. Robin van Persie's wonder-goal was mind-bending but not exactly what you'd call a repeatable soccer play—60-yard long balls, as Norwegians who remember manager Egil Olsen will tell you, aren't always a recipe for success.
So the Dutch won one game with a big defensive gamble, won another in which they struggled against ultimately weaker opposition, and defeated their last opponent by taking advantage of their opposition's need to play for a win. Pardon my reservations.
For a team that was a shanked Graham Zusi header away from missing out on the World Cup entirely, Mexico have been something of a revelation. Mexican coach/internet sensation Miguel Herrera's wing backs baffled a Cameroonian side who were lucky to not lose by three or four goals. El Tri followed up the win with a well-earned draw against group favorites Brazil and a sound victory over Croatia. Using tactics similar to those employed by the Dutch against Chile, Mexico held Croatia at bay, wore them out and then went for the jugular. To top it off, Mexico only conceded once in group play—an Ivan Perišić consolation goal when up 3-0.
The trajectory Mexico have set for themselves is impressive. They've built on each result, improving markedly and making savvy alterations to their well-drilled 5-3-2. In Netherlands, Mexico face an opponent who play in a similar formation. Both teams have enough talent and technical ability to keep this match from being a complete stalemate but both will also more than likely invite their opponent to attack first.
Mexico have bowed out at this point in the competition at every World Cup since 1994 and will be expected to do so again today. If Mexico resist the urge to play outside themselves and can coax the Dutch into taking on the role of favorite there might just be something in it for them.
I don't trust this Dutch team. Maybe it's a perceived arrogance (not always a bad thing) or my sense that their results flatter to deceive but the Oranje will meet its maker sooner or later.
Photo Credit: Getty