/

Van Gaal sings praises of spirited Netherlands squad

AP

Louis van Gaal says his Netherlands team is the most driven group of players he has ever worked with.

That’s quite a compliment coming from a 62-year-old coach who has won the Champions League with Ajax and the Spanish and German leagues with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

It showed Saturday night in Salvador when the players battled unsuccessfully for 120 minutes to break down Costa Rica’s stubborn defense before last-minute substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul went on as a one-man special team and saved two spot kicks in the shootout while four Dutch veterans buried theirs.

“Everyone who has been called in has trained really hard,” Van Gaal said after the shootout victory secured a semifinal match against Argentina in Sao Paulo. The way we took our penalties says a lot about how good this team is.”

His captain, Robin van Persie, struggled against Costa Rica, but also paid tribute to the team spirit.

“It’s bizarre,” van Persie said. “We had too many chances. You have to stay strong and focussed in such circumstances. We had to work hard to win this game.”

When Van Gaal was hired as Dutch coach in 2012, the team was on a low after crashing out of the European Championship with three straight losses.

He has rebuilt the defense and rejuvenated the team, based around a handful of veterans — Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt, who all scored in the shootout.

When it hired him, the Dutch soccer association set the experienced coach a target of qualifying for the World Cup semifinals.

Mission accomplished.

Now the team that lost the 2010 World Cup final to Spain after extra time and came to Brazil with low expectations faces Lionel Messi’s Argentina for a chance to reach a second straight final.

It helps a team’s confidence when its manager keeps pulling rabbits out of hats with his inspired substitutions and astute tactical changes.

None more so than Van Gaal’s decision to bring on Krul in the last minute of extra time against Costa Rica with World Cup elimination staring him in the face. Van Gaal considered him a better option in the shootout than No. 1 keeper Jasper Cillessen, who hadn’t conceded a goal in regulation and extra time.

The Costa Ricans had played for most of the match as if they were prepared to settle for a shootout, but it cost them a semifinal spot as Van Gaal conjured another in his string of successful substitutions.

“We are all a bit proud that this trick helped,” Van Gaal said.

Now the tactical mastermind will have to come up with a plan to shut down Argentina and its star player in Wednesday’s semifinal in Sao Paulo.

“Argentina is a very good team with very strong individual qualities — Messi, for example,” he said.

Krul defends behavior

Rio de Janeiro AP

Netherlands goalkeeper Tim Krul insists he did nothing wrong in confronting Costa Rica’s penalty takers during a World Cup shootout.

Krul’s crucial two saves on Sunday night followed his novel tactic that tested FIFA’s guidelines on fair play. The substitute goalie faced up to opponents at the penalty spot and repeatedly told them he knew where they’d place their shots.

“I don’t think I have done anything wrong,” Krul said at a team news conference. “I haven’t shouted at (them) in an aggressive manner. I haven’t done anything crazy. I just told them I knew where they are going.”

The Dutch team’s 4-3 shootout win after a 0-0 draw set up a semifinal against Argentina.

Krul said he would do the same again if Wednesday’s match goes to a shootout and he again gets substituted in for Jasper Cillessen, who is expected to start in the Dutch goal.

“I am trying obviously to get into their heads and it worked,” said Krul, who instantly entered World Cup lore, both as a rare replacement and for his trash talk. “I use everything in my power to make it happen.”

Krul said he learned just before the match that he might be called on in a penalty shootout. Cillessen said he was not told.

Krul said it had been “difficult” sitting on the bench the entire World Cup and watching Cillessen play, craving his chance to start a match.

“I’m really pleased the manager showed confidence in me to put me in a quarterfinal of a World Cup,” Krul said. “That’s something to be really proud of. There is no jealously, but I would love to play. There is nothing better than playing for your country, but Jasper is our No. 1 at the moment.”

Asked if his late appearance in extra time unsettled the Costa Rica team, Krul said it probably did.

“When I started my warmup the whole bench was kind of confused what is going on,” he said, recalling Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto reaction to Dutch coach Louis van Gaal’s move.

“If you see their manager’s face, he was looking at our manager,” Krul said. “His face was priceless, I think.”