By CARL SETTERLUND
In a World Cup ripe with memorable games, the Netherlands raised the bar on Sunday in Fortaleza, pulling of an unlikely comeback down a goal in the waning moments against Mexico.
Mere minutes from advancing to its third World Cup quarterfinal, El Tri was dealt a devastating blow by the Dutch as they tallied twice after the 88th minute to secure a 2-1 victory.
First came Wesley Sneijder with the equalizer just minutes from full time after Klaas-Jan Huntelaar headed it back into the center of the box off a right side corner. Sneijder was left inexplicably unmarked to run on and send a laser beam just inside the left post.
Heartbreak struck for the Mexicans in the second minute of second-half stoppage time as Arjen Robben dribbled in from the end line right of goal and was tripped up by Mexico captain Rafa Marquez to draw a penalty.
Huntelaar stepped to the spot and finished confidently into the lower left corner for the winner in the 94th minute as Guillermo Ochoa (2 saves) went diving in the other direction.
It’s hard to put the blame on Ochoa, who would have been hard-pressed to stop either goal. He had only allowed one goal in three Group Stage matches.
Opposite him, Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen had a few shaky moments, but came up with five saves to emerge as the winning goalie in a game that featured 15 shots on frame.
Mexico went ahead in the 48th minute on a sensational strike by Giovani Dos Santos.
Following a scoreless first half, Dos Santos broke the game open with a strike from long distance, taking possession 30 yards out and getting a shot off despite three Dutch defenders close by. Dos Santos sent an incredible volley across his body and just inside the right post to make it a 1-0 lead.
The Netherlands, World Cup finalists in 2010, will move on to face the winner of Sunday afternoon’s game between Costa Rica and Greece.
The high-flying Dutch have won all four of their World Cup games, scoring multiple goals in each of them.
Despite the stunning ending, it didn’t always look like fortune would favor the Netherlands. On a day in which the temperature surpassed 100 degrees on the field, the Dutch were dealt an early blow when the influential Nigel de Jong had to sub off in the ninth minute with an undisclosed ailment.
Mexico squandered a strong opportunity in the 17th minute when they passed it around the box. The play culminated with Héctor Herrera sidestepping right and sending a low ball just barely left of the post. Herrera went down in the box three minutes later amid two defenders, but had to settle for a corner.
Carlos Salcido tested Cillessen in the 24th minute with a long-range try from the edge of the attacking third as El Tri sought to put the pressure on.
The Netherlands had a chance of its own three minutes later as Stefan de Vrij played a ball over the top into Robin Van Persie behind the Mexican back line. Van Persie was able to bring the ball down, but couldn’t manage a quality attempt, skying it wide right.
Dos Santos put a shot on target from right of goal in the 42nd minute, but like Van Persie, was doomed by a challenging angle as his shot proved an easy save for Cilleson.
The Dutch had their best early chance just seconds before halftime as Van Persie split the defense to play Robben through into the box, but the Bayern Munich man went down with no foul called.
Early out of the break, Dos Santos struck for his first international goal since 2012, sending Mexico in front for the next 40 minutes.
Ochoa helped preserve that 1-0 lead with the save of the match in the 57th minute, denying de Vrij point blank after he had gotten onto the end of Robben’s right side service. The Mexico keeper came up big once more in the 74th minute, cutting off the angle on Robben’s dangerous try from right of goal.
Louis van Gaal’s decision to sub on Huntelaar for Van Persie in the 76th minute proved a stroke of genius. Mexico made a similar move a minute earlier, bringing on Javier Hernández for Oribe Peralta.