Slovakia’s fairy-tale run came to an end at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium on Monday, with Arjen Robben returning to the starting line-up and helping fire the organised Oranje into the quarter-finals with the first goal in a 2-1 win. As the only debutants at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ head for home with their heads held high, the Dutch – who have never before won their first four matches at the finals – can now start preparing for a last-16 test against either Brazil or Chile in Port Elizabeth on Friday.
Vladimir Weiss’s Slovakia were not overawed by their fancied opponents in the early going. Erik Jendrisek fired over the bar from a decent position after only two minutes, though if that was an intended warning shot, the Dutch – with nine points from their three games so far – are not a team that rattle easily. Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder both had good chances to score subsequently before Robben, in his first start at these finals, made his mark on the match. Chasing a long ball up from midfield, the Bayern Munich winger outpaced Radoslav Zabavnik up the wide-right channel, cut inside and fired low inside the near post, beating goalkeeper Jan Mucha who might have done better. It was only the second first-half goal scored by the Netherlands in South Africa.
Arsenal ace Van Persie had the next chances as the break approached. He surprised the Slovakia defence in the 41st minute but, after cutting in from the left, could only muster a tame toe-poke at Mucha. With just seconds to go before half-time, he then stole in behind the backline but failed to control Mark van Bommel’s low cross, that was whipped in through the six-yard box. Robben was in the mood again when the second period got underway. After Van Persie dragged the Slovakia defence out of position, the ball fell kindly for the former Chelsea man, who wriggled inside the area only for his sizzling low shot to be thwarted by Mucha’s fingertips. The goalkeeper was called into action again from the resulting corner, bravely blocking a Joris Mathijsen effort from close range.
Suddenly, Slovakia – who shifted into a more attacking 4-4-2 for the second half – came to life in the 67th minute. Marek Hamsik pushed the ball out wide for Dutch-based striker Miroslav Stoch, but his shot was tipped over for a corner. Robert Vittek was then guilty of missing a glorious chance only seconds later. Collecting the ball in acres of space and with bags of time, he shot directly into the palms of Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg to groans from the section of the crowd not dressed in orange.
The Dutch continued to push forward in search of another goal and with six minutes to go, and the withdrawn Robben now on the bench, Dirk Kuyt chased down a long ball and crossed low for Sneijder. The Inter Milan man made no mistake with the goal at his mercy and calmly bulged the back of the net. Even though Vittek managed a consolation goal for the Slovaks in the dying seconds of stoppage time – netting from the penalty spot after Stekelenburg had brought him down – it was too late to signal a change of fortune. The Dutch now march on to meet either Brazil or Chile, who contest their Round of 16 contest at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park later in the evening.