Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie came up empty again. The Netherlands forwards, and the rest of the team, essentially ran out of steam on Wednesday in the World Cup semi-finals, losing to Argentina in a penalty shootout following a 0-0 draw.
How different to a month ago and the start of the tournament, when the teammates scored two goals each and the Dutch soared to a glorious 5-1 win over defending champions Spain.
It was all downhill from there for the three-time WC runners-up. The Dutch never again reached the heights of that win over the world champions in Salvador, trailing Australia at one point, and then needing a last-gasp comeback against Mexico and their own shootout win over underdogs Costa Rica to make the last four.
On Wednesday in a grinding battle against Argentina, the Dutch were on their last legs. Their fate appeared to be especially tied to the two front men, who both failed to score in open play in the knockout stages. And on Wednesday, the Argentine defence kept them covered yet again.
The Netherlands’ World Cup hopes faded through the last three games and finally ended with a 2-4 shootout loss to the Argentines at Itaquerao Stadium.
“You can’t blame anybody, also not the boys who missed penalties,” said Robben, who did score in the shootout. “You win together and you lose together.”
As a team, the Dutch appeared weary. Defender Bruno Martins Indi was substituted at halftime because he was struggling with the pace of Enzo Perez, and midfielder Nigel de Jong, only recently back from injury, had to come off after an hour.
Van Persie, the Netherlands captain, didn’t even make the shootout.His World Cup ended as he was brought off in extra time, with coach Louis van Gaal describing his lead striker as “exhausted.”
Van Persie trudged off and still hasn’t scored in the knockout stage of a major tournament. Robben, however, did keep going. And the Netherlands’ best chance of breaking the deadlock even fell to him. But like in the loss in the World Cup final in South Africa four years ago, he was agonizingly denied.
Back then, Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas stopped his shot with an outstretched foot. This time, Robben’s goal-bound poke was blocked by Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano.
“We created tiny chances,” Robben said. “I had one right before full time. It didn’t come on to me nicely.” Van Gaal was more brutal, or maybe just more realistic, in his assessment. “We didn’t create very much,” the coach said.
Wednesday’s game at an overcast Corinthians Arena had been billed as a duel between Robben and Lionel Messi, but instead it was the defenders on both sides who took centre-stage.
While Messi was masterfully corralled by Dutch centre-back Ron Vlaar, Robben rarely threatened to add to his tally of three tournament goals.
Set free by Wesley Sneijder on the stroke of full-time, he was denied by a magnificent sliding block from Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano. And when he finally managed to cut inside his man on the right flank and shoot at goal in trademark fashion in the first half of extra time, his effort flew straight at Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Robben at least found the target in the penalty shootout, sweeping the ball into the bottom-right corner as Romero plunged the other way. But Romero had already saved from Vlaar by that point and when Wesley Sneijder’s subsequent spot-kick met the same fate, it was left to Maxi Rodriguez to fire Argentina into a showdown with Germany in Sunday’s final.
Having been within touching distance of a second consecutive final appearance, Holland must instead prepare for Saturday’s third-place play-off with Brazil, and Robben was less than enthused by the prospect.
The Netherlands’ penalty shootout loss to Argentina was an unjust way for them to exit the tournament, according to playmaker Sneijder.
“We deserve much better,” said the Galatasaray midfielder, one of two Dutch players to see a penalty saved by Argentina goalkeeper Romero. “Argentina were playing for penalties, which wasn’t the case with us.
We tried to play. I missed my penalty. It’s a shame. But it’s particularly frustrating not to have capitalised on the chances we created over the 120 minutes.”
Vlaar saw his opening spot-kick saved by Romero, but having produced a commanding display over the course of the game, he said he would not let it get him down. “It’s sport, and it’s tough. But I’m a man and I’m not going to whinge about it,” Vlaar said.
“Of course, I know that I played well, but positive feelings pass to one side now that I’ve missed my penalty. We’re going home empty-handed. It’s sad, because the only thing that counts is the title. There’s still the third-place match (against Brazil). But it’s not the same thing.
With inputs from AP & AFP