We knew the Dutch were no longer the Total Footballing purists of old, but who would have expected them to become a side reliant on set pieces? The Netherlands, did, in fairness, have other chances in the final minutes of Friday's 2-1 quarterfinal victory against Brazil, but its goals both came from set pieces, both won on the right flank.
It was always going to come down to who won the battle on that side of the field. Robinho was the dominant personality in the first half, Arjen Robben in the second, and the way the Dutch accomplished that transformation was the key factor. Nigel De Jong's role was critical.
Robinho was at the heart of almost everything Brazil did from an attacking point of view. Playing too deep for Gregory van der Wiel to comfortably pick him up from fullback and too far to the right for De Jong and Mark van Bommel to cover from their central holding roles, his natural position located him precisely in an area of Dutch weakness and he took full advantage early in the match.
He gave warning after seven minutes, coming to the middle, squeezing a ball through to Luis Fabiano and then running on to tap in the striker's intelligent and unselfish cross, only for Fabiano to be ruled marginally offside. Robinho struck three minutes later, drifting inside again as the center-back pairing of Johnny Heitinga and Andre Ooijer, who had discovered he was playing only 30 minutes before kickoff, demonstrated their unfamiliarity by opening up. Felipe Melo found him in an unfathomable amount of space, and Robinho showed his class with an instinctive first-time finish.
At that stage, the Dutch seemed washed up, struggling to prevent the supply to Robinho, and then struggling to stop him when the ball was worked to him. Later in the half, Robinho battled through two challenges on the left before playing the ball in to Luis Fabiano, who helped it on to Kaka. His curler was pawed away by Maarten Stekelenburg at full stretch. Then, just before halftime, Robinho wandered inside and, in a move that recalled Pele's famous pass to Carlos Alberto for Brazil's fourth against Italy in the 1970 final, laid the ball outside him for Maicon, overlapping from right back. His first-time shot was well-saved by Stekelenburg.
It seemed then that Robinho was producing one of the indelible World Cup performances, a display that would put to shame his detractors at Real Madrid and Manchester City and confirm once and for all the reality of his nebulous talent.
Robinho was the man the Dutch had to stop, and they did so superbly in the second half. Van der Wiel, who had a miserable first half, pushed tighter on him, while De Jong was shifted across, not quite in a man-marking role, but with a clear objective to keep Robinho quiet. That left Van Bommel to counter Kaka (with some help from his center backs) and provide cover to help Giovanni van Bronckhorst deal with Dani Alves. It was a gamble but it worked, partly because Robinho had been so obviously the keystone of Brazil's attacking play, and partly because the Netherlands -- perhaps by neutering Robinho -- was able to have far more of the meaningful possession after halftime.
Brazil-Netherlands play-by-play analysis
Suddenly, Michel Bastos found himself having to defend against a marauding Robben, whom Brazil had managed to crowd out in the first half whenever he had tried to cut inside on to his left foot. Robben's only real contribution in the first half had been to draw the foul that earned Bastos a yellow card, but that proved crucial. The fullback had been happy enough backing up Robinho, but put under pressure in the second half and made tentative by the possibility of a second yellow card, he looked every inch the midfielder that he usually is.
It was a foul by Bastos -- a lunge that could easily have earned that second caution, even if Robben managed to evade the challenge -- that led to the 53rd-minute free kick from which the Netherlands equalized. It was worked to Wesley Sneijder, who had been very quiet, starved of the ball until then, and his cross was dangerous enough for Felipe Melo and Julio Cesar to get in each other's way, with the midfielder Melo glancing the ball into his own net.
Fifteen minutes later, the Dutch scored the go-ahead goal: another corner -- again won down the right -- Robben crossed, Dirk Kuyt flicked on and Sneijder buried the header. It was a move clearly practiced on the training ground, something as out of keeping with the stereotype of Dutch football as playing with two holding midfielders. The modern Dutch, though, the newly pragmatic Oranje, might be about to do what their fabled forebears could not, and win the World Cup.
The Netherlands was helped on its way by Melo, who, correctly identifying the danger if not the best way of dealing with it, and presumably unsettled by his own goal, thrust his studs into Robben's thigh and was sent off in the 73rd minute -- as good an image of the way the winger had undone Brazil as there could be.
Brazil had a couple of marginal chances in the closing minutes, the odd cross flashed across goal, but with Robinho now subdued and Kaka having never really found his way into the competition after a poor season at Real Madrid, the creative poverty of Brazil's midfield was exposed. But for a couple of sloppy failures to capitalize on the break, the Dutch would have won more easily.
Manager Bert van Marwijk must take credit for having had the tactical wit to turn the course of the game. The Netherlands conjured two goals when Robben was the sole member of the front four to really fire -- and that was only in the second half. The sense is that the Dutch haven't quite hit top gear but are still in the semifinal.