SAO PAULO – Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie came up empty again.
The Netherlands forwards, and the rest of the team, essentially ran out of steam Wednesday in the World Cup semifinals, losing to Argentina in a penalty shootout following a 0-0 draw.
How different to a month ago and the start of the tournament, when the teammates scored two goals each and the Dutch soared to a glorious 5-1 win over defending champion Spain.
It was all downhill from there for the three-time World Cup runnerup.
The Dutch never again reached the heights of that win over the world champions in Salvador, trailing Australia at one point, and then needing a last-gasp comeback against Mexico and their own shootout win over underdog Costa Rica to make the last four.
On Wednesday, in a grinding battle against Argentina in Sao Paulo, the Dutch were on their last legs.
Their fate appeared to be especially tied to the two front men, who both failed to score in open play in the knockout stages. The Argentine defense kept them covered yet again.
The Netherlands’ World Cup hopes faded through the last three games and finally ended with a 4-2 shootout loss to the Argentines at Itaquerao Stadium.
“You can’t blame anybody, also not the boys who missed penalties,” said Robben, who did score in the shootout. “You win together and you lose together.”
As a team, the Dutch all appeared weary. Defender Bruno Martins Indi was substituted at halftime because he was struggling with the pace of Enzo Perez, and midfielder Nigel de Jong, only recently back from injury, had to come off after an hour.
Van Persie, the Netherlands captain, didn’t even make the shootout. His World Cup ended as he was brought off in extra time, with coach Louis van Gaal describing his lead striker as “exhausted.”
Van Persie trudged off and still hasn’t scored in the knockout stage of a major tournament.
Robben, however, did keep going. And the Netherlands’ best chance of breaking the deadlock even fell to him. But like in the loss in the World Cup final in South Africa four years ago, he was agonizingly denied.
Back then, Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas stopped his shot with an outstretched foot. This time, Robben’s goal-bound poke was blocked by Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano.
“We created tiny chances,” Robben said. “I had one right before full time. It didn’t come on to me nicely.”
Van Gaal was more brutal, or maybe just more realistic, in his assessment.
“We didn’t create very much,” the coach said.
Third-place game ripped
Sao Paulo AFP-JIJI
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal lashed out at the World Cup’s third-place playoff match on Wednesday after his side’s semifinal defeat to Argentina.
Van Gaal’s troops must now travel to Brasilia to face Brazil on Saturday for a game he believes should have been scrapped years ago.
“I think this match should never be played,” van Gaal told reporters. “I’ve been saying this for 10 years. But we’ll just have to play this match.”
Van Gaal said the match condemns the losers to finish a tournament after another defeat, and that one side always has an extra day’s rest.
“It’s unfair also because we have one less day to recover, so that’s not fair play,” he said. “But the worst thing is that chances are you lose twice in a row.
“And after a tournament in which you’ve played so marvelously well, you would go home as a loser just because you’ve lost the last two matches.
“This has got nothing whatsoever to do with sport.
“But I said this 15 years ago. You shouldn’t have players play a match for third-fourth place, because there’s only one prize that counts and that’s becoming champion,” said van Gaal who moves on from the World Cup to become Manchester United’s manager.
Media blasts Brazil
Rio de Janeiro REUTERS
Brazilian media savaged the team’s performance with newspapers describing the Germany defeat as an “historic disgrace”, “national humiliation”, “eternal shame” and a “fiasco”.
A lot of the blame was directed at Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose future is now the source of wide speculation with Tite, Muricy Ramalho and Wanderlei Luxemburgo looming as his possible successor.