When Robin van Persie trudged off, seemingly frazzled in the Fortaleza heat, to be replaced by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar it seemed that this would be the enduring image of the Netherlands’ 2014 World Cup exit, as they trailed 1-0 to Mexico with only 15 minutes remaining.
But Arjen Robben inspired Louis van Gaal’s side to react, though the manner from which Huntelaar’s decisive penalty was won by the Bayern Munich winger was controversial in the extreme.
Having watched Robben throw himself to the ground during Netherlands’ rare attacks in the first half, referee Pedro Proenca elected to award a stoppage-time penalty to the Dutch as the attacker theatrically collapsed to the deck under a challenge from Rafael Marquez.
Watching the incident on the big screen after the match, the remaining Mexico fans booed the act, and while it is likely some contact was made by the former Barcelona centre-back to the Dutchman’s boot, there can be little doubt that it did not merit the swan dive that it was subsequently met with.
It was an incident that soured an otherwise fine Dutch comeback.
The rather peripheral figure of Giovani dos Santos gave them the initiative early in the second half with a searing shot, and as Van Persie faltered offensively and Guillermo Ochoa once again excelled, it appeared that this might be the match’s decisive act.
But Van Gaal gambled, withdrawing the ineffective Manchester United striker and replacing him with arch-poacher Huntelaar.
With two minutes of normal time remaining, Oranje still trailed, though when Mexico failed to adequately defend a corner kick it was the Schalke striker’s head down from which Wesley Sneijder pounced emphatically.
It was, however, primarily Robben who inspired the Dutch recovery. He would make several impressive surges down the flank throughout the match and had invited problems in the Mexico rearguard – perhaps the only member of his side to do so.
When invited to make one last burst down the right, Robben provided the game’s telling image. His initial spurt left the Mexican rearguard standing but as he checked back to beat Marquez, his flailing arms were enough to convince the Portuguese referee of the validity of his claim. It was not his first attempt at simulation, and perhaps if the referee had shown him a yellow card earlier, he may have thought twice about his match-defining moment.
It was an act of malevolent quick-wittedness sufficient to conquer the furnace of Fortaleza’s Estadio Castelao and account finally for the impressive Mexican challenge.
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