Sao Paulo: Prior to the Netherland’s World Cup semi-final against Argentina tomorrow, Robin van Persie is still waiting for his first goal in a knockout match at a major international tournament.
The Manchester United striker’s flying header against Spain helped set the tone for a group-phase of joyous football, but since then — and in keeping with the tournament as a whole — the goals have gradually dried up.
Having claimed two goals in the 5-1 rout of Spain, he netted in the 3-2 win over Australia, but has since gone 225 minutes without scoring.
Suspended against Chile, he was substituted in the 76th minute against Mexico and had to watch from the bench as his replacement, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, scored the injury-time penalty that sent Holland through.
Against Costa Rica in the quarter-finals, he was unable to convert a string of chances, notably seeing an injury-time shot blocked on the line by Yeltsin Tejeda, before scoring in the penalty shootout.
The 30-year-old spoke openly of his desire to become the tournament’s top scorer after his first two appearances, but with two games remaining, he trails Colombia’s James Rodriguez by three goals in the race for the Golden Boot.
As things stand, the former Arsenal forward appears destined to pursue a pattern that has seen him score all his major tournament goals in the group phase.
At each of his previous World Cups, in 2006 and 2010, he scored only once in the first round, failing to add to his tally in South Africa four years ago despite starting every game as Holland reached the final.
– ‘Don’t need the limelight’ –
At the 2008 European Championship he scored two group-stage goals, only for Holland to lose to Russia in the quarter-finals, while at Euro 2012 he found the net only once as his side fell at the first hurdle.
It was doubtless with these disappointments in mind that he announced on the eve of Holland’s departure for Brazil: “This World Cup is not about Robin van Persie.
“It is about our team doing well,” he added. “I love a big tournament, but I don’t need to have the limelight.”
Van Persie’s preparations for the tournament were complicated by the fact he spent six weeks on the sidelines after spraining his knee against Olympiakos in the Champions League in late March.
He made only one start for United before the end of the season and was used sparingly in Holland’s warm-up games, scoring twice — against Ecuador and Ghana — but being removed early in all three matches.
Dutch coach Louis van Gaal has continued to exercise caution in Brazil, substituting Van Persie in his three first appearances, but in keeping with the nascent spirit of harmony within the squad, the captain has accepted his lot.
“We’re a squad of 23 players,” Van Persie said. “The atmosphere is excellent. I don’t have anything at all to complain about.”
Van Persie’s excellent relationship with Van Gaal, who takes over at United after the World Cup, means he has less reason to fear for his place in the team than another goal-shy striker might.
But while Argentina’s commitment to going forward means that he should have more room to manouevre than against the deep-lying Costa Ricans, he is running out of opportunities to truly leave his mark on the tournament.