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Louis van Gaal had complained beforehand about his view from the dugout, but for long periods of this wonderful match the Holland manager must have wished he was unable to see anything. Australia, the lowest ranked team at the World Cup, gave Holland one hell of a scare and can count themselves bitterly unlucky to leave Porto Alegre with nothing to show for their efforts.
Ange Postecoglou promised that his players would take the game to Holland and the Australia coach was true to his word. Inspired by the evergreen Tim Cahill, whose breathtaking first-half volley will be remembered as one of the classic World Cup goals, Australia played without fear and made life far more uncomfortable for Van Gaal and his players than they could ever have imagined.
For Holland, the overwhelming emotion at the final whistle must have been one of relief, even if Van Gaal insisted that was not the case. They have racked up eight goals in two matches – Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have scored six of them – and have already earned their passage into the second round, thanks to Spain’s defeat later in the day.
The Dutch were able to celebrate their second win at these finals in the company of the king and queen of Holland, who posed for photographs in the dressing room afterwards. But this was a far from convincing performance from the Dutch.
The defining moment in the match came midway through the second half when Mathew Leckie, who caused Holland no end of problems with his pace on the right flank, looked poised to put Australia 3-2 in front, only to chest the ball gently into the grateful arms of Jasper Cillessen, the Dutch goalkeeper. “I said to Danny Blind and Patrick Kluivert [the Holland coaching staff], if they miss an opportunity like that, we’re going to take it,” Van Gaal said.
And so they did, thanks to a moment that Mathew Ryan, the Australia goalkeeper, will have nightmares about. Memphis Depay, a first-half substitute for Bruno Martins Indi, who was taken to hospital with suspected concussion following a clumsy challenge from Cahill that earned the Australian a booking and a suspension for the final game, strode forward and thumped a swerving shot from 25 yards that Ryan looked to have covered – only for the ball to find the corner of the net via his fingertips.
Holland saw the game out, but this felt like a reality check on the back of their 5-1 victory over Spain in Salvador last Friday, and prompted fresh questions about Van Gaal’s tactics. The Holland manager had decided to retain the 5-3-2 system that worked so effectively against Spain but he reverted to 4-3-3 at the interval after losing Martins Indi and accepting that something had to change to enable his players to get a grip on a game that Australia were controlling in the first half.
“Fortunately it turned out OK, but it could just as well have turned out differently,” said Van Gaal, who lamented the way in which Holland gave possession away so carelessly in the first half. “In the second half we created more opportunities. I really have to congratulate the team, compliments to them, because the way we came from behind was incredible. I never want to put any individual in the limelight, but the way in which Nigel de Jong took the lead was impressive.”
Holland’s opening goal came totally against the run of play, albeit via a predictable source. Daley Blind’s header released Robben on the halfway line and the Bayern Munich forward skipped away from Matthew Spiranovic’s wild and desperate lunge. There was only going to be one winner and one outcome. Going through the gears in the inside-left channel, Robben sprinted into the area and drilled a low left-footed shot across goal and into the far corner of the net.
What followed 70 seconds later was remarkable, but no more than Australia deserved. Ryan McGowan floated a perfectly weighted 40-yard diagonal pass into the path of Cahill, who struck a sumptuous left-footed volley that clipped the underside of the bar and bounced over the line. It was Cahill’s fifth World Cup goal and a moment of brilliance.
Mark Bresciano and Spiranovic both had chances to put Australia ahead before Mile Jedinak converted from the spot in the 54th minute after Daryl Janmaat was adjudged to have handled. Holland were on the back foot, but within five minutes Van Persie, who will be suspended for the final group match against Chile after picking up another booking, registered his third goal of the tournament with a vicious shot into the roof of the net.
Then came Leckie’s miss and Ryan’s blunder, leaving Australia crestfallen. “I’m heartbroken,” Postecoglou said. “I just wanted the players to get reward. I put a lot of pressure on, saying we’d take the game to world class opposition, but it’s one thing saying it and another doing it. They did it today and didn’t get reward.”
He added: “Maty is very disappointed, he’s distraught. But it’s not about one player costing us the game. I thought collectively we were outstanding. We did everything we needed to do today bar win a game.”