By Matt O'Leary
Special to CSNNE.com
My fast-paced stretch of 10 games in 13 days came to an end at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town on Thursday night. Upon seeing the game schedule six months ago, I expected Group Es final group match between the Netherlands and Cameroon to be one of the most important games that I had tickets for. But once Cameroon was defeated by Denmark last Saturday, it meant that last nights game in Cape Town would be a mostly meaningless affair.
The Dutch led the group with six points and barring an unlikely set of circumstances where they lost their final game and Japan scored a number of goals in a win against Denmark, the Dutch would remain top and win Group E. Cameroon had been the first side mathematically eliminated from World Cup play following their disappointing showing in a 2-1 loss against the Danish last weekend and had could only play for pride.
The walk to the stadium had the feel of a big game. The vendors stalls were all set along the side of the road, the Dutch fans in bright orange were singing and it was overall a colorful atmosphere. Once the game started though you could tell something was missing, the game simply lacked an edge to it. I was impressed that the Netherlands started the majority of their best players and head coach Bert van Marwijk only rested their players with yellow cards. Cameroon started with a similar lineup to last weekend but star striker Samuel Etoo came out very slow. After creating a few half-chances in the first ten minutes, Cameroon did not see much of the ball in the first half as the Netherlands kept possession through the likes of Kuyt, van Bommel and Nigel de Jong.
One thing of note in the first half was the length of the wave that was started in one corner of the ground. Almost all the games I had been to featured the so-called Mexican wave at some point during games but this match easily displayed the longest wave I have seen. Green Point is a large stadium and the wave convincingly got around the stadium four or five times making for quite an impressive sight. Its the sign of a rather average game however, when the wave is the spectacle that keeps the fans most interested.
The Dutch scored about ten minutes before half-time after another African goalkeeping error. It was good football by the Dutch that allowed Robin van Persie to get behind the Cameroon defense but he should never have been able to score from such a tight angle. The ball went through the Cameroon keepers legs and the Netherlands took a deserved lead into halftime.
The second half began at a rather lazy pace as the neutrals in the stadium started to get behind Cameroon. It seemed that Samuel Etoo was trying to do everything himself and his team severely lacked the killer pass in the final third that would open up the Dutch defense. The breakthrough finally came when the Africans won a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. The consequential free kick struck Mark van Bommel in the arm and the Chilean referee pointed to the spot. The captain Etoo stepped up and fired an impressive penalty into the middle-left corner of the net to tie the game at 1-1.
Another major highlight of this somewhat drab contest was the introduction of Dutch magician Arjen Robben. Robben, considered by many to be the Netherlands most influential player had been sidelined by a hamstring injury since a week or two before the start of the World Cup. Coach Bert van Marwijk must have believed him to be fully fit to give him some minutes in their final group game. He played high on the right and was not getting too many touches in the game before he was played in behind the Cameroon defense in the 85th minute. Robben, was caught by the defenders, pulled the ball back and dribbled across the top of the 18 before firing a terrific shot off the right post. The ball rebounded perfectly to fellow substitute Klaas Jan Huntelaar who coolly slotted into the empty net to give the Dutch the 2-1 lead and the eventual win.
The Netherlands became just the second team after Argentina to win their first three games of the World Cup, and more importantly gave Robben some much needed minutes on the field. The Dutch will now square off against a determined Slovakian side in the round of 16 as the country hopes to reach their first World Cup final since 1978. People say the Netherlands are the best footballing nation to have never won a World Cup and perhaps this could be their year. They are very organized defensively and with Robben back on the field they have the necessary firepower going forward to be capable of beating anyone. Keep an eye on the Dutch as they begin their run through the knockout stage towards the elusive World Cup title.