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In so many recent major finals, the Netherlands have endured the shattering heartbreak of elimination on penalties. In a nerve-wracking climax to follow 120 tight and tense minutes in Faro-Loulé, the 'Oranje' finally laid to rest their spot-kick hoodoo to book a UEFA EURO 2004™ semi-final place and foil Sweden's hopes of European glory.
The EURO '92 semi-final against Denmark; the EURO '96™ quarter-final against France; the 1998 FIFA World Cup semi-final against Brazil; the UEFA EURO 2000™ semi-final against Italy; all were lost by the Dutch in penalty contests. This time, at long last for them, the Netherlands won the battle of nerves and now continue their roller-coaster Portuguese adventure.
No penalty practice
A week ago, coach Dick Advocaat was facing the music from the Dutch press and public after his side lost a two-goal lead to the Czech Republic. Now, after a record 54th match in charge, the Little General prepares for Portugal. "We actually didn't train [for penalties], because I still think it's like a lottery," he explained. "The quality of the players is what matters. I was not involved when the Netherlands lost previous shoot-outs."
Hero to villain
The shoot-out score stood at 2-2 after Ruud Van Nistelrooij and John Heitinga had scored for the Dutch, and Kim Kallström and Henrik Larsson replied for the Swedes. Up stepped Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a Swedish hero at this tournament, to shoot over the bar. Michael Reiziger and Fredrik Ljungberg exchanged penalties to make it 3-3, but Phillip Cocu saw his effort strike the outside of the post. All-square, and a stadium in tumult.
Christian Wilhelmsson kept his wits to score and put Sweden 4-3 ahead, Roy Makaay made it 4-4. Then, the decisive moment: Swedish captain Olof Mellberg, a giant in his side's display over 120 minutes, saw his spot-kick saved by Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. Up stepped Arjen Robben, and the youngster's penalty was expertly dispatched into the corner. That was the cue for party time for the orange hordes in Estádio Algarve. A mouth-watering semi-final against hosts Portugal – themselves quarter-final shoot-out victors against England – now beckons for Advocaat's men.
"The penalty was the moment of my life, but I was not very afraid or nervous - I was confident of scoring," said Robben. "It means a lot to Edwin van der Sar, as he has been on the losing side before. But he stopped the Mellberg penalty, and that was fantastic. Big compliments to Edwin for that. It's very exciting, we finally won a penalty shoot-out, and now there will be a big party."
The Netherlands had the bulk of the attacking play in a nip-and-tuck game that finally caught fire in extra time. But for all of their promise, they failed to break down a durable Swedish side that resisted solidly, and the Scandinavians had the edge on chances. The ever-dangerous Larsson and Ljungberg hit the woodwork in an enthralling climax to extra time, and the unfortunate Ibrahimovic saw Cocu clear off the line after the interval. In return, though, Robben hit the post for the Dutch in extra time.
It was a philosophical Swedish co-coach Lars Lagerbäck who faced the press. "Last time in the World Cup we lost in the second round on a golden goal, and this time on penalties," he said. "We could see this in a positive way: we are getting closer." For partner Tommy Söderberg it was a sad way to end his tenure with the Swedish team. "Of course you feel extra sorry for Tommy ending on losing on penalties," added Lagerbäck. "In a way it is easier to accept losing when the other team is better."
Man of the Match Van Nistelrooij was tired but triumphant, saying: "We believed, it's wonderful. Now we have lost our bad reputation on penalties. While the others took their penalties, I walked up and down and hoped..."
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