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The Cup Running Over


July 5, 2010 5:00 PM

Uruguay-Netherlands Semifinal Preview: The Dutch Deserve To Be Favorites But Uruguay Has a Better Chance Than Many Believe

In a Nutshell: These are two teams with glorious histories who weren't expected to be here but are, let's face it, primarily because the teams they played in the last round blew it. Neither is likely to be a crowd favorite -- Uruguay because it beat African favorite Ghana by committing an obvious handball in the last minute to stop a certain goal and the Dutch because of their colonial history in South Africa.

Previous History:
  They've only met once at the World Cup in 1974 when the Dutch had their best team. Unsurprisingly they won 2-0.

What We Learned Last Game: Holland still hasn't played a top-class game in the tournament but has found a way to win and often comfortably -- an unusual attribute for Dutch teams. The Uruguayans have been scrappy too and have scraped by in both games of the knockout rounds -- once on penalty kicks. But they still haven't beaten a top-flight squad at the tournament yet.


NETHERLANDS


Record and Goals: 5-0, nine goals scored, three allowed.

The Good News: Though still out of gear somewhat, the offense still looks good for about two goals a game, even though the Dutch are playing more conservatively than in the past. Midfielder Wesley Sneijder has been one of the players of the tournament and got the key goal against Brazil. Offensive forces Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie have been disappointments but are outstanding when on. The defense has been better than expected too -- especially defensive midfielders Nigel de Jong and Mark von Bommel.

The Bad News:
De Jong is suspended for this game. Meanwhile Robben has earned a deserved reputation for diving and the offense doesn't function as effectively as it should when he's on the field, as good as he is, because the other players look to him rather than to other openings. The defensive back four isn't strong and may even be weaker than usual with the injury to Joris Mathijsen.

Pedigree:
Getting to the semis isn't that unusual for the Dutch (this is the fourth time), nor is getting to the finals (twice). But it's known as "the best team never to win a Cup" for a reason. It tends to fold when the chips are down.

Player to Watch:
Sneijder, yes, but de Jong's replacement, whoever it is (likely Demy De Zeeuw or Stijn Schaars). The play of the defensive midfielders for Holland has been excellent and the key to its performance so far. Should that change, so could Holland's fortunes and either replacement is a real step down..

Telling Stat:
Holland has won its last 13 games in a row and is unbeaten over the last 24.

To Win:
At this point in the tournament, the tendency is always to advise teams to keep doing what they've been doing so far. Holland will obviously dominate possession. So, it has to make the possession count -- attacking down the wings through someone other than Robben since the Uruguayans will undoubtedly be focused on stopping him. The Dutch also need to strike quickly on the counter of Uruguay's occasional counters. Keeper Maarten Steklenburg has to continue his excellent performances.



forlan.jpg
If Diego Forlan can keep scoring for Uruguay, his team has a chance.



URUGUAY



Record and Goals: 3-0-2, seven goals scored, two allowed.

The Good News: The best striker tandem in the tournament -- Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. The defense has been tenacious and inexperienced keeper Fernando Muslera better than expected -- so far.

The Bad News:
Suarez is out due to the handball suspension and key defender Diego Lugano is hobbling. Rising star -- midfielder and winger Nicolas Lodeiro -- is hurt too, as is left back Jorge Fucile, though defender Diego Godin is expected back from injury. That's a lot of holes to fill. In the last game, Uruguay got away from a game plan that had worked (allowing the other team to retain possession and striking on the counter in a 4-3-1-2) and should have lost the game because of it. All of Africa is likely to be rooting against it because of the way it beat Ghana. Despite its run, Uruguay has yet to beat a top team in South Africa.

Pedigree:
Once the greatest power in the sport (titles in 1930 and 1950), Uruguay hasn't been to the semis since 1970. This is its fourth appearance this late in the competition

Player to Watch: With Suarez out, it's Forlan or bust as far as goals are likely concerned, especially since it's possible that Uruguay will opt to replace the suspended Suarez with another midfielder, playing even more defensively than it has so far. 

Telling Stat:
According to OPTA stats, three of Forlan's four goals have come from outside the box.

To Win:
Shut down Sneijder and Robben. Don't concede free kicks in the zone. Go back to the strategy of the first four games and let Holland control the game but strike quickly on the counter. Most of all, hope Forlan and Muslera are red hot.


Prediction: The Dutch are the better team and should win, especially since Uruguay is missing key players. What could change things are the Dutch propensity to choke in big games, the loss of de Jong (a key performer so far), or a mistake, a la Brazil last time. An upset is unlikely but more possible than most pundits have been willing to concede, if only because the Uruguayans will play very conservatively and goals will be at a premium.


If It Goes to Penalties: Historically the Dutch are almost England's equal at blowing penalties. So, if form holds and it goes this far, bet on Uruguay.

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