The Netherlands scored twice in the last 10 minutes to beat Belarus 3-1 on Saturday and keep alive extremely remote hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in Russia.
The narrow victory combined with Sweden’s 8-0 thrashing of Luxembourg and Group A leader France’s 1-0 win in Bulgaria means the Netherlands must beat Sweden by seven goals in Amsterdam on Tuesday to finish second in the group and have a chance of progressing to a playoff.
Dutch captain Arjen Robben wasn’t holding out much hope for a miracle, telling fans trying to work out the math behind a Dutch qualification to “leave the abacus at home.”
“You must always keep going to the last minute and we have to try to make it a good match, but you have to be very realistic,” Robben told Dutch broadcaster NOS.
“Normally you shouldn’t say it out loud, but you can now say what everybody thinks – that 6-0 just is not possible,” Robben added, underestimating by a goal the mammoth task facing the Dutch on Tuesday. Sweden has conceded a total of seven goals in its nine qualifiers so far.
Coach Dick Advocaat, drafted in to lead the team after Danny Blind was fired following a 2-0 defeat in Bulgaria in March, wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. “The reality is it’s very difficult, but it’s not over,” Advocaat told NOS.
Robben converted an 84th-minute penalty to move level with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Faas Wilkes on 35 international goals, but he had a frustrating night in Borisov trying to urge his team forward to make up ground on Sweden.
The match in Sweden was an early kick off, meaning the Dutch knew the mountain they had to climb before play started in Belarus. They never got out of the foothills.
Davy Proepper’s first-half strike was cancelled out by Maksim Valadzko early in the second spell before Robben gave the Dutch back the lead and Memphis Depay scored from an injury-time free kick to make the score look respectable, but inadequate.
The Netherlands reached the semifinals of the last World Cup in Brazil and was losing finalist four years earlier in South Africa, but failed to qualify for last year’s Euro 2016 tournament in France.
“You miss the European Championship and now almost certainly the World Cup. Of course it hurts,” Robben said. “Unfortunately, it’s part of football, it’s part of sport.”
Sweden’s margin of victory came as a shock to Advocaat, who ruled out Sweden beating Luxembourg by 8-0 when a journalist suggested it was a possibility last week.
“They’re not going to win 8-0, what kind of stupid question is that?” Advocaat said. “8-0? No. I really don’t believe that.”
Advocaat could again be out of a job after the Sweden match. He was appointed until the end of the qualifying campaign or until the end of the World Cup if the Dutch qualify.
Robben, a 33-year-old veteran with 95 caps, wasn’t ready to call an end to his own international career, yet. “First Sweden and then we’ll see,” he said of his plans for the future.