Welcome back, Arjen Robben.
The star Dutch winger who missed almost the whole first round of the World Cup due to an injury returned in style today with a lovely left-footed goal off a curling long ball from teammate Wesley Sneijder.
The Netherlands vs. Slovakia match seemed like just another day at the office for Robben, who scores goals like that with some regularity at Bayern Munich. And, for much of the first half, the Dutch looked reminiscent of the 1970’s “Clockwork Orange” squad that punished opponents with systematic crisp passing and fast runs to space, capped off with precision goal-scoring.
Despite stringing together win after win, Holland has been overlooked in this World Cup. The men in orange have been solid, but not overly impressive.
The first-round meltdowns of soccer’s other traditional European powerhouses, Italy and France, have stolen the headlines. As has the stand-out performance of Argentina and its effervescent coach, the legend, Diego Maradona. But Robben adds a "wow factor" and rounds out a star-studded Dutch team that can beat the best on any given day.
Slovakia, however, was no pushover. After all, this is the team that just days ago stunned the world by knocking reigning champions, Italy, out of the first round.
Halfway through the second half, the Dutch defense began to falter amid the strong and eager Slovakian counterattack.
The Slovakians almost converted a couple of chances to tie them game. Indeed, they would have were it not for a couple top-class saves from goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
But Holland’s Sneijder coolly put the game out of reach in the 83rd minute by sidefooting a shot through the legs of a scrambling Slovakian defender.
Ten minutes later, however, with just seconds to go until the end of injury time, the Slovakians added a more respectable veneer to the score sheet after striker Robert Vittek buried a penalty kick that he drew with a convincing bit of acting in the penalty box.
It was too little, too late for the Slovakians after a valiant effort to equalize in the second half.
Now soccer fans worldwide will be drooling over the prospect of a Netherlands-Brazil quarterfinal later this week.
As impressive as Holland was today, they will not be able to beat Brazil if they give away the types of chances they gave the Slovakians midway through the second half.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
First, Brazil will have to dispatch with fellow South American competitor, Chile. That won’t be an easy task.
World Cup 101: