DURBAN, South Africa - Impressive as Arjen Robben and his Dutch teammates were in advancing to the World Cup quarterfinals, they seek much more.
The Netherlands reached the final eight Monday when standouts Robben and Wesley Sneijder scored in each half of a 2-1 victory over Slovakia.
“We played a difficult match. Main thing is, we are through,” Robben said. “Probably the perfect game has still to come.”
The Dutch might need to approach perfection in their next match, against Brazil, which beat Chile 3-0. For now, they can enjoy the rekindling of the crafty Dutch offense — and they can credit Robben, who made his first start of the tournament after recovering from a hamstring injury.
The Oranje, who have never won soccer’s biggest prize, went ahead in the 18th minute when Robben cut inside from the right wing and found the net with a low, precise shot from 20 yards.
“It’s fantastic,” coach Bert van Marwijk said. “After such an injury that he has the touch to score a goal like that.”
The Moses Mabhida Stadium was filled mostly with orange-clad Netherlands fans and they blasted their vuvuzelas on Robben’s first touch. After his goal, the sound became deafening.
Sneijder doubled the lead into an empty net in the 84th after a gamble by Slovak goalkeeper Jan Mucha backfired.
“We had a good first half hour. And we started well in the second half,” Van Marwijk said. “We should have scored 2-0, 3-0, maybe 4-0 there.”
Netherlands goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg preserved the win with two key saves in the 67th and the Dutch extended their team-record unbeaten streak to 23 games. Robert Vittek scored on a last-second penalty kick for Slovakia, then rushed to the net to retrieve the ball, only to hear the final whistle.
“At a crucial stage Maarten Stekelenburg saved us,” Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk said.
It was only a month ago when Robben and Sneijder were on opposite sides of the pitch in the Champions League final — Robben with Bayern Munich and Sneijder with winner Inter Milan.
On Monday, they showcased some of the brilliant passing and scoring that is a trademark of the Netherlands when it is playing well. Sneijder sent Robben sprinting upfield with a long, accurate pass and the winger did what he’s been doing all season with Bayern, scoring with shots from beyond the penalty area.
With a sharp breeze blowing in from the nearby Indian Ocean, Robben nearly doubled the lead in the 50th minute, but Mucha deflected his shot just wide of the goal. A minute later, Robben sent a dangerous cross inside the area and Mucha blocked a close-range shot from Joris Mathijsen.
In the 71st, when he was replaced by Eljero Elia, Robben exited to a standing ovation.
“He’s a total genius, and when I saw him in the starting lineup I thought he makes the Dutch team 50 percent stronger — and I was right,” Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss said.
Sneijder sealed the victory when Dirk Kuyt drew Mucha out of his net.
The Netherlands won all three group games; its last loss was to Australia in September 2008, a run of 18 wins and five draws.
Slovakia upset Italy 3-2 in its previous match, eliminating the defending champion. The Slovaks had to be satisfied with their tournament debut as an independent nation.
Slovakia’s two best chances before Vittek’s penalty kick both came in the 67th. Stekelenburg leaped to tip a powerful shot from Miroslav Stoch over the crossbar. Then Vittek, who scored twice against Italy, directed his shot too close to the goalkeeper seconds later.
Vittek’s penalty kick goal tied him with Argentina forward Gonzalo Higuain for the tournament scoring lead with four goals.
“We played with heart and courage and we are proud that we made it to the second round, but the better team advanced,” Weiss said. “The penalty made us feel a little better on the flight home.”
The Netherlands reached consecutive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978 but lost both — to Germany and Argentina, respectively. Its only major tournament victory was the 1988 European Championship.
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