It took 85 minutes but the Netherlands are finally alive in this World Cup. It took Cody Gakpo, with their first-ever shot on target in an even contest, to break an unbroken stalemate and give the Dutch the start they so badly wanted here in Doha. .
Louis van Gaal’s side, back on this stage for the first time since 2014, have high hopes of a deep run after a solid qualifying campaign and they are on the shelf after a hard-earned 2-0 win against Senegal to equalize Ecuador at the top of the fledgling Group A.
Van Gaal has been a central figure in the build-up to this tournament, with his admirably open – and frank – views on the off-pitch concerns that have dogged him from its inception, a stark contrast to almost every other manager here.
The potential too for a fairy tale ending after a battle with cancer with this in all likelihood, his last major tournament run tantalizing in an otherwise so negatively driven World Cup.
Winners of the African Cup of Nations, Senegal have also been dynamic and carry the hopes not only of a country but of an entire continent here in Qatar. The absence of Sadio Mane, a truly talismanic striker in every sense of the word, who scored Afcon’s winning penalty earlier this year, was felt as many feared. An attractive, attacking team with plenty of big-name pedigree lacked the stardust needed to put them on top in a game in which they more than held their own until the very end.
While Qatar’s tilt against Ecuador on Sunday night will be best remembered for a lack of tournament-opening atmosphere and a slew of empty seats, the same couldn’t be said here with the Al Stadium. Thumama alive with the kind of soundtrack you expect from these. two countries.
It was an even first half with the band of noise and color from the stands matched by an honorable degree of energy and effort on the pitch, if there was any lack of real quality in the final third. It comes as no surprise, however, with both stripped of their most dangerous forwards for the start of this game and, in Senegal’s case, for the entire tournament.
Striker Boulaye Dia, one of three coaches Aliou Cissé has now turned to to take on the attacking burden in Mane’s absence, was brilliant, flashing early on while another, Watford’s Ismaila Sarr, saw perhaps the best opening either team had brilliantly. denied by Virgil van Dijk, the Liverpool defender headed what looked very much like a bound shot to the top corner over the bar.
At the other end, Gakpo, heavily linked with a move to the Premier League this summer, was bustling with the Dutch’s best pros and probes often passing through the PSV man. One early, timed dart in particular ended in a whipped cross on the box only to evade sprawling Steven Bergwijn.
Vincent Janssen, the man Van Gaal tasked with filling Memphis Depay’s wide shoes for that opener, carved a rather thankless furrow up top with midfielder Frenkie de Jong instead, the best chance of the Half-time Netherlands. The Barcelona star so often seems blessed with all the time in the world, wanted far too much when a quicker shot was the much better option after being set up by Steven Berghuis, Senegal clearing his lines with far more ease than he shouldn’t have been allowed to.
After an hour of watching his side huff and puff, Van Gaal had had enough as Depay, deemed not fit enough to play 24 hours prior, was called up from the bench. The former Manchester United striker’s value to this team cannot be overstated – he is one of Van Gaal’s untouchables alongside De Jong – with his 18 qualifying goals leading the team by a long shot.
It was another surprise call from Van Gaal that made the most telling immediate contribution. Goalkeeper Andries Noppert hadn’t even been called up to the national team until the autumn of this year, but the famously eccentric Netherlands boss has created a surprise for this first outing by handing the 6ft 8in keeper a first international selection for this one. And he needed all that wingspan to prevent Dia’s ferocious training. A second attempt, which would not have counted after a linesman’s flag, a few minutes later was also well repelled.
But with the clock ticking and the points seeming to be shared, Gakpo has seized his moment. A floating cross from De Jong from the left was met with a telling touch, as he rose to drive the ball home just out of Edouard Mendy’s reach.
With Senegal forced to engage bodies up front, a second counter-attack was always a danger and substitute Davy Klaassen provided it, sweeping home after Mendy fended off Depay’s bending shot.
The Oranje faithful screamed – with relief as much as joy – to finally be heard above the din of the Senegalese in the stands, and three points were finally safely secured.
If it’s going to end in a fairy tale for this Dutch team, it wasn’t a bad start.