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How good is this Dutch team?

July 7, 2010
Carlisle By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com
(Archive)

JOHANNESBURG -- To reach a World Cup final, you don't have to play well every game. Just well enough.

The Netherlands' collection of talented attackers proved this point in the team's 3-2 semifinal win over Uruguay on Tuesday. Now the Oranje are poised to win the tournament for the first time in their history.

That Uruguay forced the Dutch to work for everything at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, isn't news. La Celeste have been doing that to opponents throughout the tournament, courtesy of an airtight defense and a midfield as tenacious as they come. But with Uruguay forward Luis Suarez and defender Jorge Fucile suspended, and captain Diego Lugano injured, the Netherlands was expected to control the match. And when Oranje defender Giovanni Van Bronckhorst opened the scoring in the 18th minute with a 40-yard dart into the upper corner of the net -- one of the best goals of the tournament -- it looked as though the Dutch were on their way.

Yet the goal seemed to lull the Oranje into a false sense of security. Instead of continuing to push the issue, the Netherlands seemed lackadaisical, and it was made to pay in the 41st minute. If there is one thing you don't do against Uruguay, it's give marksman Diego Forlan space to tee up a shot inside of 35 yards. Yet that is precisely what the Netherlands did, allowing Forlan to score from distance with the help of some sloppy footwork from goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.

The goal raised the possibility that Uruguay would spring yet another surprise result. Yet the halftime interval revealed precisely why such an eventuality was unlikely. Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk brought on a more offensive-minded midfielder in Rafael van der Vaart for Demy De Zeeuw. When combined with the skill already on the field in the form of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt, the Dutch had an embarrassment of attacking riches.

By contrast, Uruguay was basically relying on what can be described charitably as the Archangel offense. Without Suarez on the field, La Celeste were relying on Forlan alone to perform miracles. Once again, forward Edinson Cavani provided little to no threat, while Sebastian Abreu was introduced too late in the game to really have much impact.

The loss of young playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro also was keenly felt. As disciplined as Uruguay's midfield is, the likes of Egidio Arevalo and Walter Gargano were never going to provide the necessary guile to threaten the Dutch.

That's not to say the Netherlands had everything its own way after halftime. The Dutch continued their scattershot passing during the early stages of the second half. Yet eventually, their attacking quality stepped to the fore. Sneijder scored on a deflected shot that squeezed just inside the far post in the 70th minute. Robben then appeared to seal matters by heading home Kuyt's inch-perfect cross three minutes later.

Yet incredibly, the Dutch nearly threw the match away even as Uruguay took an injured Forlan off in the 84th minute. A well-worked free kick saw Maxi Pereira curl home his shot from outside the box in the second minute of stoppage time, at which point La Celeste laid siege to the Dutch goal, even as their best attacker lay stewing on the bench.

But there would be no miracle for Uruguay this time. The Netherlands engaged in some desperate defending to defuse some goalmouth scrambles, allowing it to hang on for the win.

Clearly, what was good enough for the Netherlands in the semifinals won't be sufficient in the final against either Germany or Spain. The lapses in concentration that were so rife in this game will be punished in the next one. But when you have as many gifted playmakers as the Dutch do, you can win even when the team isn't at its best.

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.