SAO PAULO – Two substitutes, two goals.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal can, it seems, do no wrong at this World Cup.
He sent on replacements Leroy Fer and Memphis Depay in the second half of the match against Chile on Monday and they scored both goals in a 2-0 win that confirmed the Dutch as Group B winners with a maximum nine points.
“It is luck,” van Gaal himself said about his super substitutions. “Just luck.”
But it was more than that. Fer, listed by FIFA as 188 cm, scored with a header a minute after coming on as a substitute for the 171-cm Wesley Sneijder.
“I know Leroy Fer is tall compared with our opponents. I know he can head the ball well,” van Gaal said.
Then there was Depay.
“We analyzed that Chile in the last 15 minutes gives away more room,” van Gaal said. “If you have a creative player in at that moment, you have the chance to use that space.”
Manchester United, which hired van Gaal to restore its fortunes after a disastrous season by the club’s lofty standards, must be delighted even if it has to wait a bit longer for him to join it after the World Cup.
Chile, one of the most attacking and attractive teams at the World Cup, had no answer at Itaquerao Stadium, especially not without midfielder Arturo Vidal, who watched from the bench.
“I played the best team I had,” said Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli.
Juventus star Vidal had knee surgery before the tournament and had a sore Achilles tendon but said a day before the match he felt fit and ready to play.
Both teams had already advanced to the second round, but Chile’s first loss of the tournament consigned it to second place in Group B and a meeting with host Brazil in Belo Horizonte.
The Dutch next travel to Fortaleza to play Group A runner-up Mexico in the round of 16 on Sunday.
Chile began with its trademark fast, attacking style while the Dutch, with a five-man defense, looked content to sit back, absorb the pressure and break out with swift counterattacks.
“We gave nothing away and fought like lions,” stand-in captain Robben said. “Orange lions.”
The match marked the first time at this World Cup the Netherlands had played in its national color, but the change of jerseys didn’t change its fortunes.
Vidal’s absence deprived Chile of midfield creativity and it struggled to break down the well-drilled Dutch defense.
Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez tried to fill the gap left by Vidal, but couldn’t find a way through. He came closest to scoring in the second half with a powerful shot that Jasper Cillessen easily blocked at his near post.
“I’m very proud of this team,” Robben said. “If you see how we fought here today. We were right on top of them and gave them no chances.”
The Netherlands were playing without suspended captain and striker Robin van Persie and was also missing defender Bruno Martins Indi, who suffered a concussion in the team’s last match, a tough 3-2 victory over Australia in Porto Alegre.
No problem for inspirational coach van Gaal, who pulled a tactical surprise with his starting lineup — reverting to the 5-3-2 formation he began with against Spain and posting veteran forward Dirk Kuyt, in his 99th international, at left back.
“I enjoyed it,” Kuyt said. “I never played in this position but the coach told me a couple of weeks ago that it could be a possibility during the tournament and I told him that I would be ready for it and I was very happy I get the chance. I think it went very well and hopefully I will get another chance.”
Then came van Gaal’s substitutions.
Fer headed in powerfully and Depay doubled his World Cup tally in stoppage time. Robben delayed his cross from the left cleverly until the PSV Eindhoven striker arrived at the far post — also delaying his run by a split second to shrug off his marker — to tap in an perfect pass.
“He is a huge talent and great for the future of Dutch football,” Fer said of Depay.
Robben said that after three wins out of three, the Dutch squad is hungry for more.
“We can enjoy this fantastic performance, but it must not stop here,” he said.