The Netherlands is back in the World Cup semifinals, but it took a penalty shootout victory over valiant Costa Rica -- one spearheaded by a backup goalkeeper -- to get it done after a 0-0 draw through 120 minutes.
The Dutch will take on Lionel Messi's Argentina for the chance to return to the World Cup final, four years after falling just short of its first title against Spain in South Africa.
Here are three thoughts on the riveting encounter:
Van Gaal's stroke of genius banishes Dutch PK troubles
No wonder Holland was fighting for its life to avoid a penalty shootout. It had won only one of its five shootouts in major tournaments, and once missed five spot kicks in a single game (two in regulation, three in a shootout), the Euro 2000 semifinal on home turf. Costa Rica, on the other hand, had just beaten Greece on spot kicks and had the advantage of kicking first in the shootout.
So what went wrong for the underdog? Louis van Gaal, that's what.
The charismatic Dutch coach saved his third substitute for the last minute of extra time, switching goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul. If it was a move to plant a seed of doubt in the mind of the Costa Rican players, it worked. Is Krul really better at penalties? Well, he had saved two out of his last 20 spot kicks, according to figures from Bloomberg Sports, while Cillessen had saved none of his three penalties faced.
And then there is his personality: when Krul came on he was aggressive, bossing his penalty area and trash-talking the Costa Rican players before each kick. He was allowed to get away with it, and the first player to miss was skipper Bryan Ruiz. Wearing the armband carries with it an additional pressure and at that moment, Ruiz struggled.
His kick was not bad but Krul – a left-hander – dived to his natural side and kept it out. Did van Gaal select Krul because he’s a left-hander and Costa Rica had three left-footed kickers? The first person van Gaal embraced on the touchline was his goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek. Who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall at their pre-match penalties meeting before the semifinal against Argentina?
This was a tactical stalemate between the coaches
Both coaches have won plaudits for their approach in this tournament, but they canceled each other out in this one. Costa Rica’s Jorge Luis Pinto seemed to set out his side for a draw from the start, playing his usual (yet unusual in today’s game) 5-4-1 system, and challenged van Gaal to break it down.
The Netherlands had its chances – the best of which came in injury time, when Robin van Persie somehow missed from eight yards out, and then saw a shot minutes later after a scramble in the box cleared off the line by Yeltsin Tejeda. Wesley Sneijder also hit the post from a free kick, and the crossbar in extra time. Costa Rica, on the other hand, won its first corner at the 115-minute mark.
But it was van Gaal who had the last laugh, his substitution of Krul right at the death proving that when it comes to this stage of the competition, the small details make all the difference. Next job for him – the small matter of trying to contain a certain Lionel Messi.
Keylor Navas has become a star
With apologies to Tim Howard, Guillermo Ochoa and Vincent Enyeama (and, why not, Tim Krul), the Golden Glove award for the best goalkeeper at the World Cup looks like a straight fight between Germany's Manuel Neuer and Costa Rica's Keylor Navas. Going into this game Navas had the best saves/shots ratio in the competition (88 percent) and he backed that up in Salvador. Keeping out van Persie in a 1-on-1 and leaping across his goal to deny Sneijder from a free kick were just two of the saves that stood out, but there were many more.
Navas credits his training regimen for his success and for eliminating risk in his game. That might explain this video of Navas training by saving tennis balls hit from the edge of the area with a racket.
“With the ball at his feet, he is better than some outfield players,” said Joaquin Caparros, his ex-coach at Levante.
Navas was all set to join FC Porto after the World Cup (he even agreed to terms), but Levante last week rejected Porto’s €3 million bid for him. It is holding out for the €10 million in his release clause, which, though Navas is 27 and has only one top-flight season behind him, could yet prove to be a bargain.
Once again, he was brilliant Saturday – even if more penalty heroics were this time beyond him.