Netherlands battered the reigning world champions in their opening fixture and, while the star names grabbed the headlines, the lesser lights set the platform for the victory
By Kris Voakes & Stefan Coerts in Brazil
To say it was unexpected would be an understatement.
While everybody knew that Netherlands harboured great hopes of gaining revenge on Spain for their 2010 World Cup final heartbreak, few believed they would achieve it. And nobody could have guessed they’d take the world champions apart.
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After all, while the likes of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder were always likely to take it to La Roja, it was the performances of some of the lesser-known names in the Dutch lineup that set the platform for the 5-1 win.
The defensive line that had so many people questioning Louis van Gaal’s intentions ended up forming the basis for an absolute masterclass, with Jasper Cillessen being superbly protected by a back three of fantastic poise and stature.
While Ron Vlaar himself is hardly an international stalwart, alongside him were the altogether more inexperienced 22-year-old Feyenoord pair of Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij. Martins Indi proved to be a defensive rock, regularly getting in the way of promising Spanish attacks down the right. Earning only his 17th cap, the former Feyenoord junior took just 90 minutes to prove himself as an immense talent who could be a key member of further Dutch World Cup squads to come.
The attempt to show initiative had landed the centre-back in hot water, and he took it badly. His performances suffered from the entire episode, and it wasn’t until after the winter break that he got back on an even keel. Suddenly, from appearing vulnerable at regular intervals, he was back to looking like a true defensive talent.
And while he already had a number of clubs showing interest in a summer switch ahead of the World Cup, transfer talk has only accelerated since his star showing in Salvador.
The string of fine performances didn’t end there, though, with wing-backs Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind also playing key roles. The latter even played a huge part in the memorable moment of the match, delivering a pinpoint cross from range which Van Persie launched into for the goal of the tournament so far.
Blind, too, has had his travails in recent times. Only two seasons have passed since the Ajax star was being booed by his own fans, with many claiming that he was only being kept on by the Amsterdam giants due to his being the son of club legend Danny Blind.
But Blind has responded superbly, winning the Player of the Year award at Ajax in 2012-13 before scooping the Eredivisie players’ crown in 2013-14. And his display in the emphatic triumph over Spain has only further increased his reputation.
Louis van Gaal will not mind one bit if the likes of Australia, Chile and whichever knockout opponents are to come spend most of their time wondering how to stop his thrilling forward line, and he has even called upon his more experienced players to keep the rest in check.
"Nothing has changed, the team reacted very well, especially the more experienced players, they understand what is going on," said the coach on Tuesday.
"They knew that was just one win, we haven’t even qualified yet, so I see this attitude in a positive way."
But with a squad as fresh and fearless as they were originally unfancied, the Dutch could yet have a big say in this World Cup.