How far could the Netherlands have gone if Van Persie had showed up?

The Rio Report

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In their first game, they scored five. In their second, three. Then two, two, zero and zero. The diminishing goal returns of the Netherlands at this World Cup mirrored the way the tournament as a whole has gone, with the notable exception of that freakiest of freak results in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.

It is most certainly not a coincidence that the Dutch strike-rate has fallen alongside Robin van Persie's. The Manchester United forward found the net five times in the group stage – including that most remarkable diving lobbed header against Spain, and an emphatic belted finish against Australia that you would struggle to describe as anything but 'Van Persie-esque.'

Few do an emphatic finish like Van Persie, but there's been little of that since the end of the first round. Indeed, he was removed for 'tactical reasons' against Mexico, was ineffective and missed a handful of very presentable chances against Costa Rica, and was once again removed from the field against Argentina.

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One could say that it was another masterstroke by Louis van Gaal to manage a team to the semi-finals of the World Cup when one of his two best players was a passenger in the knockout rounds, but it does make one wonder what the Dutch could've done had Van Persie turned up in the last three games.

So anonymous was he against Argentina that he didn't take a single shot on goal, and while it might seem slightly unfair to single out one player as being particularly bad offensively, when there was barely a clear-cut chance all game, and as you can see he didn't exactly receive the best service, it fits with the pattern of Van Persie's performances since the group stage.

Van Gaal has proved himself to be a keen tactical thinker at this World Cup, but there is only so much a manager can do before turning responsibility over to the players. Of course, Argentina defended well, but it's impossible to say that Van Persie performed anywhere near his best in this game, or indeed their other two knockout matches. If he had been more clinical, then we might be writing about the Netherlands in the World Cup final, rather than Argentina.

Van Persie's fluctuations in form over the tournament have very much mirrored his team's performance overall. They blitzed perhaps the toughest group in the World Cup, blowing Spain away before scrapping back against Australia and skilfully picking Chile apart, leading to suggestions that they could win the whole thing and send Van Gaal off to Manchester as a conquering hero.

However, since then they haven't convinced, leaving it until the final few minutes to scrape a win over a decent but hardly world-beating Mexico, before the Tim Krul substitution made everyone forget that they couldn't break down Costa Rica, and then there was this toothless effort, registering just one shot on target in the whole 120 minutes against Argentina.

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"Of course, we played a fantastic tournament,” said Van Gaal after the game. “Nobody expected us to make it through to the next round."

It's true, few thought this Netherlands team could do anything, which is quite clearly because it's a squad of game youngsters backed up with a few talented older heads, and two of the best players in the world. They have reached this stage due to a combination of shrewd management, fine team play and a bit of luck, but the bulk of these players are ordinary, so when one of their world class talents go missing, the collective team starts to look very ordinary too.

Reaching the semi-finals with the resources available to him has been a fine achievement for Van Gaal, but one wonders what else they could've achieved had his captain played anywhere nera his capabilities in the knockout stages.

Nick Miller

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