The Dutch stormed back from the disappointment of opening-day defeat to edge Gambia 2-1 at the U.J. Esuene Staduim in Calabar, putting their campaign back on track with one Group C match to go. The spirited African champions, however, are facing elimination with zero points from their two outings and only one goal to show for their efforts.
Under the sweltering sun and stifling 88 per cent humidity of Calabar, the game began at a furious pace. Adam Maher had a free header inside the first minute, bringing a simple save out of Gambian goalkeeper Ousman Darboe. Straight up the other end, just seconds later, Baboucarr Savage tried a strike of his own that went wide after taking a deflection.
It was amid this torrid pace that the Dutch opened the scoring, Zakaria Labyad sending in a low ball across the face of goal that Luc Castaignos managed to push gently into the goal. Darboe got a hand to the bobbled shot, but couldn't do enough to keep it out. The African champions, though, were not impressed and they grabbed the equaliser seven minutes later. Ruben Ligeon hauled down Lamin Sarjo Samateh in the area, and the referee blew for a penalty. Captain Ebrima Bojang, qualifying top scorer and the Gambian captain, made no mistake from the spot to score the Baby Scorpions first goal at these finals after sending Warner Hahn the wrong way.
The second half began with the Africans eager to turn parity into a lead, Samateh slamming just wide of the post from 18 yards after Bojang headed back across the area. But despite the Gambians having most of the ball and asking most of the questions, it was the Dutch who carved out the crucial goal, thanks to a pair of fresh substitutes. Ouasim Bouy expertly controlled a high deflected clearance inside the area, taking a touch to set, before lofting an inch-perfect cross for Tom Boere, who nodded home the simplest of headers at the back post to make it 2-1 for the Europeans in the 70th minute. The lead lasted through to the end, despite the best efforts of the talented, if slightly disorganised, Africans.
The Dutch, with three points from their first two games in the section, take on Iran in their last game in Enugu on 31 October with a real hope of reaching the knockout stages. Gambia, for their part, will be hoping for their first three points in their last Group C game against Colombia to keep slim hopes of passage alive.