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Holland's van Gaal into World Cup semifinals, after penalties

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Saturday, in Salvador, Brazil, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal substituted his starting goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, a minute before the end of the second extra time in his team’s match against Costa Rica, and substitute Tim Krul saved two penalties, to none for goalkeeper of the cup, Keylor Navas, clinching a semifinals birth 4-3 in the World Cup.

This is the third game in a row that has featured a van Gaal strategic decision that worked just as he must have dreamed it would. To add a touch of insurance, again, the coach had five strikers on the pitch and at his disposal for the penalty kicks. All four who took theirs—Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Snijder, and Dirk Kuyt—converted them, leaving Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who won the game against Mexico on a penalty at the last minute of that match, as the fifth, and unnecessary, kicker today.

Three things must be noted here. First, van Gaal had Krul warming up, toward the end of regular time, when no one could have thought a new goalkeeper was really going to come in. Second, Navas, the Costa Rican team's inspirational leader was undermined by the introduction of another keeper who would steal Navas' symbolic thunder simply by coming into the match to compete with the cup's keeper. The potential psychological blow cannot be understated. Third, Krul guessed correctly on each penalty taken by the Ticos, quite a statistical stretch, unless someone did quite a bit of homework for their first match ever against today’s opponent. The brain trust at Manchester United must be vibrating right about now.

The Dutch now play Argentina for a chance to avenge their World Cup 2010 finals loss and break their country’s finals losing spell on their fourth try. Argentina, who has had the easiest road to the semifinals, keeps finding good fortune, as they now get to play an opponent who had to go to penalties.

The game provided fans in Fortaleza a lifetime of drama rolled up into its 120+ minutes of play prior to the penalty shootout. In the spirit of this surprising Brazilian World Cup, Costa Rica played another world football powerhouse even. Given, the Central Americans played eleven behind the ball and used their counters sparingly, but in the second half, and particularly in extra time, they had their chances to steal a victory from a Dutch team that dominated possession and opportunities, but not play.

Keylor Navas solidified his claim to being the best keeper of the tournament with a series of spectacular saves from free kicks, corners, shots from distance, close range boomers, and just about everything the Dutch sent his way, save the perfectly taken penalties.

The game was not exciting because it was played at the highest levels but because the Dutch created chances aplenty and the Costa Ricans found ways to foil them time and again. It was also exciting because the Ticos took their few chances to create just enough havoc to keep the Dutch honest. That the Costa Ricans could find their chances against the Dutch is a tribute to their all-around play and that the Dutch could create so many chances on a skilled team bent on maintaining a defensive shell, speaks volumes about Holland’s offensive prowess.

In Costa Rica, the daily La Nacion had this banner headline: “Costa Rica falls before Holland and leaves with their foreheads held high. Thanks muchachos!”

The Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad had as its headline: “Oranje, in a thriller, are into the semifinals.” Robin van Persie was quoted as saying “What a rollercoaster!”

The Guardian (UK) a simple headline in their sports section: “Holland 0-0 Costa Rica –aet (Holland win 4-3 on penalties).” Their second lead story was on Tim Krul, who they dubbed the “miracle sub.”

It would be a shame to spoil the fun evening of football with another poor officiating commentary but the issue is so pervasive it is taking center stage in the tournament. The calls were not as bad in this match as they were in the Brazil-Colombia match, but so many calls that would have benefited the Costa Ricans were not made that one had to begin feeling like a list was necessary to maintain the chronology.

To pick a few we kept track of the penalties and yellow-or-red-card fouls not called: at the 60:18 minute mark Joel Campbell was brought down in the box by Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi with a shove in the back that was a clear penalty; at the 71:51 Marcos Urena was knocked down in the box for another clear penalty; at the 7:52 minute mark of the first extra time, Urena was again fouled in the box for another clear penalty; at the 11:01 minute mark of extra time, Martins Indi committed his second yellow card foul; at the 12:00 minute mark of extra time Junior Diaz was kicked in the back with the ball and game’s action far from the infraction. Truly awful officiating in this cup.

Our semifinals are set: Brazil plays Germany in Belo Horizonte and Argentina plays Holland in Sao Paulo.

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