How are the respective goalkeepers likely to impact the first semi-final?
From what I had seen of Maarten Stekelenburg prior to the World Cup, I considered the possibility that Bert Van Marwijk might invite Edwin Van der Sar along for an unplanned trip to South Africa. He filled in when the Dutch goalkeepers had a mini injury crisis at the beginning of qualification so such a decision would not have been completely out of left field. A combination of difficult family circumstances and my underestimating of Stekelenburg’s talents meant that was probably never truly realistic. Under the reign of Van Marwijk, the Ajax keeper has become the first choice of the Oranje, yet there can be no doubt that Van der Sar would command the position if he made himself available for international duty.
But Holland must play with the hand they’ve been dealt and Stekelenburg has done most of what has been asked of him throughout the World Cup. He made some saves against Brazil that were as excellent as they were crucial. Without his efforts Brazil could have been out of sight early on in the quarter-final and we wouldn’t even be talking about Holland. My judgments on Stekelenburg were based mainly on some of his performances for Ajax. He looked slow, clumsy and unconvincing at times, and this was reinforced by the fact Marco Van Basten saw fit to drop him during the 2008-09 season but he has recovered to make the position his own under Martin Jol. That said, he’s been around for the better part of a decade, so it’s easy to forget how young he is. At 27, he’s allowed make a few mistakes, but with Holland eying up their maiden World Cup crown, he’ll need to be at the top of his game. And his best will be required because he’s good, but far from perfect.
In the other corner is Fernando Muslera. If Stekelenburg epitomises the Dutch team’s adequate yet largely unimpressive progress in this World Cup, then Muslera’s form also apes that of Uruguay in general. In short, there are signs of genuine talent, but on occasion they have prevailed by accident rather than design. Ultimately he made the save in the penalty shootout that earned the Uruguayans their place in the last 4, but during open play he was suspect. Sulley Muntari had the praise heaped upon him for his goal, but (a) it was struck from about 30 yards out (b) it wasn’t struck with any great pace and (c) it wasn’t right in the corner. Muslera was slow to react and didn’t get across his goal well enough. He is undoubtedly agile as his penalty save showed, but in the build-up to the Luis Suarez handball incident he was left flailing foolishly as the ball pinged around the 6 yard box. His judgement and decision-making need work, but there is certainly ability that’s ready to be molded. There’s no arguing with results and the clean sheets he has accumulated during the World Cup demonstrate he has talent, but he’s not flawless and nor should he be at just 24 years of age.
In years to come, Muslera may well become a top class goalkeeper. Serie A is as good a finishing school as a young keeper is likely to get, but for the moment, Stekelenburg is the more convincing of the two. With so much attacking talent on the field, it would be a shame if a World Cup semi-final was settled by a goalkeeping error, but neither custodians strike you as being utterly flawless. The pressure of such an important match will highlight any flaws.