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Little bit of luck never hurts

July 2, 2010
Carlisle By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com
(Archive)

JOHANNESBURG -- The Netherlands knew that a lot of breaks would have to go its way if it was to beat Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinal. Little did the Dutch know that the biggest assist would come from their uncharacteristically fragile opponent.

That the Dutch fully deserved their 2-1 win at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth can't be questioned. While the Netherlands kept its collective cool, Brazil eventually lost its composure after the game's turning point -- Felipe Melo's 53rd minute own goal.

Until then, the Dutch had looked almost completely bereft of ideas and hope. And with Robinho scoring from Melo's defense-splitting pass after just 10 minutes, there appeared to be no way back for the Netherlands.

But once the Brazilian midfielder nodded Wesley Sneijder's cross into his own net -- with considerable help from goalkeeper Julio Cesar, who failed to get a touch on the delivery -- the game was turned completely on its head. Granted, the goal came courtesy of an incredible slice of luck, but at this point the Netherlands' self-belief redlined, while Brazil suddenly looked rattled and vulnerable. This trend was confirmed in the 68th minute, when Arjen Robben's corner kick was flicked on by Dirk Kuyt and was then redirected by Sneijder for the game winner.

Yet rather than rely on its technical brilliance to climb back into the game, Brazil imploded. Melo completed an utterly forgettable day by receiving a deserved red card in the 73rd minute for deliberately stamping on Robben. An air of panic characterized nearly every Brazilian attack, as well. Players hung on to the ball too long and relied more on individual skill than the quick combinations that are the team's hallmark.

Of course, composure is an easy trait to come by when players make game-saving plays, and the Dutch had goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg to thank for keeping them in the match. In the 31st minute, Kaka received the ball at the top of the box, and with time to measure his shot, seemed poised to double his side's advantage. Had the Brazilian converted, it no doubt would have settled the game, but Stekelenburg delivered the save of the match -- and perhaps the tournament -- using perfect technique to swat away Kaka's curling drive with his right hand while diving to his left.

This is precisely the kind of play that, when combined with a little bit of luck, can help a team catch fire and fuel a team to victory. Such was the case with this Netherlands side, which finally banished the memories of its 3-2 loss to Brazil in 1994, and its penalty shootout defeat to the Seleção four years later.

Now the Oranje only have the winner of the Uruguay-Ghana match to stop them from reaching the final for the first time since 1978. On that occasion against hosts Argentina, the Netherlands lacked the element of good fortune, hitting the post late in the match. Given how Lady Luck smiled in Port Elizabeth, not to mention the confidence the Dutch showed, the team is poised to write a very different ending.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.