Late goals from Cody Gakpo and Davy Klaassen were enough to give the Netherlands a crucial 2-0 win over Senegal in their World Cup opener, sending the Oranje level with Ecuador on top of Group A.
Just as a flat second half looked to be fizzling out, Gakpo leapt to meet a beautifully weighted Frenkie de Jong cross and head into an empty net, with Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy caught in no-man’s land.
De Jong’s assist made up for an error in the first half, when he squandered a great chance while one-on-one with Mendy.
Senegal twice tested debutant Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert after the break, but they were unable to find a breakthrough in the absence of injured star man Sadio Mane.
The Netherlands were also missing their key forward, Memphis Depay, but he made a surprise appearance from the bench in the second half, his first appearance since picking up an injury in September.
And he was involved in the 99th-minute goal that sealed the result, when Depay’s shot was limply parried by Mendy and stuck in on the rebound by fellow substitute Klaassen.
The Netherlands and Ecuador are level on top of Group A, following the latter’s 2-0 win over Qatar; they face each other on Friday, after the host nation take on Senegal.
The match began with a good tempo as attacks swung from end to end, but neither side possessed a clinical edge in the final third to make the breakthrough.
The best chance of the half arrived after 19 minutes when the Dutch launched a quick, well-executed counter that left De Jong one-on-one with Mendy inside the area, but the midfielder hesitated, took too many touches and was robbed of the ball before he could get a shot away.
Ismaila Sarr was Senegal’s brightest spark in the absence of Mane, and the Watford man showed his talent when he skipped past a marker and curled a shot towards the far corner, but Virgil van Dijk got a head to the shot.
The African champions were struggling to test debutant goalkeeper Noppert, with Youssouf Sabaly firing a harmless shot down his throat from long distance and Krepin Diatta dragging an effort wide, while at the other end Steven Berghuis had a decent sight of goal but fired over.
Senegal threatened a breakthrough after the break when Boulaye Dia’s snapshot from a tight angle was pushed wide by Noppert in a rare shot on target, but they suffered a blow when midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate was stretchered off with an injury.
Just as a goalless draw seemed inevitable, De Jong curled in an inviting ball from deep and Gakpo got there ahead of Mendy to nod into an unguarded net.
Senegal threw bodies forward in search of an equaliser in eight minutes of stoppage time, as Bamba Dieng and Ismail Jakobs had efforts off target, but a direct pass and nod-on to Depay led to the Netherlands’ second with the final kick, as Mendy could not hold the shot and Klaassen converted.
TALKING POINT – SARR SENEGAL’S BRIGHTEST HOPE IN MANE ABSENCE
The impact of Sadio Mane’s absence was always going to be a major talking point for Senegal. After all, their captain was the man who scored winning penalties this year to win them their first Africa Cup of Nations and send them to Qatar through the World Cup play-offs.
Sarr was undoubtedly their brightest spark against the Netherlands, with the winger demonstrating an ability to draw in defenders with his close control before sending team-mates into space.
Senegal’s forward line didn’t look particularly well joined up, though, and they will need more from Sarr and the rest of their attackers if they are to reach the knockouts.
The African champions mustered 15 shots, five more than the Dutch, but only four of them were on target and they failed to truly test a debutant goalkeeper in Noppert. This will likely be the toughest test for them in the group stage, but they need to be more clinical in the final third.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH – FRENKIE DE JONG (NETHERLANDS)
The midfield maestro ran the show for the Netherlands, and if he had converted his glorious first-half chance, it would’ve been an almost perfect all-round performance.
De Jong was alert and effective defensively, he kept his side ticking in possession, he made impressive driving runs up the pitch, and he ultimately produced the moment of quality that unlocked the game with his assist for Gakpo.
SENEGAL: E Mendy 5, Sabaly 7, Koulibaly 7, Cisse 6, Diallo 6, I Gueye 6, N Mendy 6, Kouyate 6, Diatta 6, Dia 6, Sarr 7. Subs: Jakobs 6, Dieng 6, P Gueye 6, Jackson 6.
NETHERLANDS: Noppert 7, De Ligt 6, Van Dijk 7, Ake 7, Dumfries 6, Berghuis 6, De Jong 8, Blind 6, Bergwijn 6, Gakpo 7, Janssen 6. Subs: Depay 6, Klaassen 7, Koopmeiners 6, De Roon 6
19’ – DE JONG SQUANDERS HUGE CHANCE! The Dutch launch a counter-attack which should have them in front! Berghuis tees up De Jong, who just has the keeper to beat, but the midfielder hesitates, takes too many touches, and Senegal recover to clear!
65’ – CHANCE FOR SENEGAL! Best chance of the second half! Dia latches onto a through ball and spins to get a shot away towards the near post, but Noppert gets down sharply to parry it wide. That’s the first real test for Noppert, and he stood up to it.
85’ GOAL! Senegal 0-1 Netherlands (Gakpo): A cross from deep is superbly weighted to meet the run of Gakpo, who gets there ahead of Mendy to head into an empty net. The ball was beautiful from De Jong, but Mendy will be disappointed.
99’ GOAL! Senegal 0-2 Netherlands (Klaassen): The Dutch with a route one goal to make it two, launching it long to Depay, whose shot is parried by Mendy, and Klaassen is on hand to stick the rebound in the net. Two late goals, and that’s job done for Van Gaal’s men.