World Cup: Netherlands leaves it late to beat Mexico
Better late than never.
As those in green danced with joy and celebrated the apparent end of Mexico’s World Cup curse, those in orange were already planning their flights home.
Mexico, which had failed to win a last-16 match in its previous five attempts, finally appeared to have cracked it.
Giovani Dos Santos’ strike, which came in the 48th minute, looked like it had secured a quarterfinal place for only the third time in nation’s history — and the first on foreign soil.
And yet, with the prize within its grasp, Mexico faltered at the last.
With just two minutes of the contest remaining, step forward Wesley Sneijder.
A man for whom nothing had gone right all afternoon. His passing was wayward, his touch was off and the quality with which he has been blessed appeared to have temporarily escaped him.
But when the Netherlands needed the Galatasaray man the most, he delivered.
With 88 minutes on the clock, the ball came out to Sneijder on the edge of the penalty area and he sent an unstoppable right-footed effort into the bottom corner.
Cue the hysteria from the Dutch fans, who had already consigned themselves to an evening of drowning their sorrows and an early flight back to Amsterdam.
In the energy-sapping conditions of Fortaleza, where the temperature pitchside reached over 100, Mexico suddenly wilted.
For the best part of 90 minutes it had negated the attacking threat of the Dutch, seen off Robin van Persie and looked good value for a place in the last eight.
After all, for a team which only qualified for the tournament following a playoff against New Zealand, a place in the quarterfinals would represent a huge success.
Mexico, led by the charismatic and affable Miguel Herrera, have become one of the most difficult sides to beat.
But when it needed its resilience most, it failed.
Instead, Arjen Robben, the man who had tormented Mexico for large periods of the second half, was brought down inside the penalty area by Rafael Marquez.
A penalty was awarded and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar showed remarkable composure to fire low into the corner and break Mexican hearts in the fourth minute of six added on.
“The players showed they had faith and belief until the very end,” van Gaal told reporters following the 2-1 victory.
“The humidity was not in our favor, so when you see that until the very last minute we were fresher and fitter than the Mexicans, that is a big compliment to my players.
“Not only did they have belief but physically they prepared so well to play this match. That of course gives us enormous confidence going forward.”
Few would have expected such late drama, with the Dutch appearing to struggle to create many clear-cut opportunities before falling behind.
Mexico, which defeated Cameroon and Croatia either side of a draw with Brazil, started positively and felt it should have been given a penalty when Ron Vlaar fouled Hector Herrera.
Those appeals were dismissed by referee Pedro Proenca, as were the shouts from the Dutch when Robben was upended by a combination of Hector Moreno and Marquez.
With both teams having slowed down play following the tournament’s first three-minute cooling break, introduced by FIFA to combat dehydration in the hot weather, it was little surprise that the first half ended goalless.
But the second 45 minutes proved a far more entertaining affair — especially given Mexico’s rapid start.
Dos Santos received the ball 20 yards from goal and his fierce effort flew past Jasper Cillessen and into the far corner.
That goal appeared to stun the Dutch — a side which had swept all before it in the group stage.
After all, this was a Netherlands team which had dismantled reigning world champion Spain 5-1, beaten Chile comfortably and fought back to see off Australia.
But in the oppressive heat, the men in orange appeared to be toiling under the heavy sun.
When the Dutch did get forward, they found the irrepressible Ochoa in the form of his life.
Already a star following his performance against Brazil, where he produced save after save, the Mexico goalkeeper was at it again.
First, he denied Stefan de Vrij from close range, pushing his header onto the post before standing tall to block Robben’s effort.
The Dutch looked down and out. And then it happened.
Step forward Sneijder, one of the few experienced players who was there that fateful night in South Africa when his side was beaten in the final by Spain.
With just two minutes remaining, his rasping effort flew past Ochoa and breathed new life into his ailing teammates.
Huntelaar, who had replaced the ineffective van Persie, then converted his injury-time penalty to spark wild celebrations.
A date with Costa Rica or Greece now awaits the Dutch — for Mexico, it’s home time once again.