The Netherland scraped into the World Cup semi-finals with a shoot-out victory over Costa Rica – and with the help of a winning gamble by Louis van Gaal. The coach’s decision to take off goalkeeper Jasper Cillesen and put on Tim Krul in the final minute of extra time paid off when the Newcastle keeper saved spot-kicks from Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana to send the Netherlands through to a Sao Paulo semi-final with Argentina on Wednesday.
It was a match where the Netherlands had all the ball and virtually all the chances but a Costa Rica side who had made history simply by surviving to the quarter-final stage defended like heroes.
The Concacaf team had in Keylor Navas a goalkeeper who showed just why he is considered one of the tournament’s finest and a combination of his excellence, Dutch profligacy and the goalframe kept the game goalless until deep into extra time. It was at the Arena Fonte Nova that the Oranje had ripped Spain apart with their electric counterattacks in their first match but a venue which has seen more goals than any other at this World Cup now witnessed an entirely different kind of contest.
Van Gaal had faced the conundrum of how to replace the injured Nigel de Jong and his response was to switch from 5-3-2 to 3-4-3 with Dirk Kuyt and Danny Blind playing as wing-backs and Memphis Depay, the PSV Eindhoven forward, joining Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie in a front three.
The two wing-backs fashioned the first chance of note after 22 minutes. Depay burst forward on the counter and fed Kuyt out on the right who picked out his team-mate in the D with a clever return ball. When Depay slipped it in turn to Van Persie on the left side of the box, it looked the kind of chance the Manchester United striker would gobble up but Navas came out to narrow the angle and made the save before dealing comfortably with Wesley Sneijder’s follow-up.
The Costa Rican goalkeeper had already built an impressive body of statistics before this match – conceding just once in open play and saving 87.5 per cent of his shots faced – and he was at it again soon after when saving Depay’s angled strike with his foot at his near post. On the ground where Tim Howard excelled for USA against Belgium, here was another keeper in the mood and there was an even better save to come before half-time as he dived to his right and got a hand to Sneijder’s fine 25-yard free-kick.
Costa Rica had lined up differently at the start of the night with Bryan Ruiz transferring to the centre-forward role and Joel Campbell – leader of the line in previous games – switching to the right flank but their game plan was as anticipated.
There was a small but noisy Costa Rica contingent in the main stand and with their red, white and blue balloons they transmitted a party feel yet on the pitch the Ticos players were less interested in creating a spectacle than sitting deep and keeping thing tight. Indeed their only threat in the first period came from a set piece as Celso Borges nodded Christian Bolanos’s back-post free-kick into the middle where Johnny Acosta’s attempted overhead kick was scrambled clear.
Costa Rica’s unprecedented run – beating Uruguay, Italy and Greece – seemed to have taken little out of them given their energy levels. Their defensive discipline was admirable although it helped that the Dutch lacked speed in their ball circulation. All the same, Robben’s presence can spread anxiety in any back line. Junior Diaz earned a first-half yellow card for tripping him and Umana suffered the same punishment shortly after the restart.
Costa Rica’s coach, Jose Luis Pinto, had caused a stir before the match by urging the Uzbek referee, Ravshan Irmatov, to “watch out” for Robben’s diving yet in both instances the Bayern Munich man was simply too quick for the defenders.
As the rain fell, Costa Rica showed their first real signs of attacking menace. Junior Diaz broke down the right and crossed low to Campbell who went down under a slight nudge from Bruno Martins Indi. It was not a penalty but it was still a surprise to see the striker make way for Marcos Urena shortly after. Another Bolanos dead ball led to a half-chance for Giancarlo Gonzalez at the far post but, stretching to get there under pressure from Ron Vlaar, he could not direct his header goalwards.
With eight minutes of normal time remaining a third Costa Rican, Gonzalez, went in the book for a foul on Robben, and this time it did look like a dive, but the ensuing free-kick so nearly produced a goal, Sneijder whipping the ball over the wall from the left corner of the penalty box and against the near post.
How a tiring Costa Rica survived to extra time is something only Van Persie can explain. The Dutch captain turned and drove low at Navas and then , inexplicably, failed to connect with Sneijder’s cross. His hat-trick of near misses was complete in injury time when Daley Blind’s cross flew across the goal and reached Van Persie beyond the far post; he shot and the ball hit Yelstin Tejeda on the goalline and bounced up on to the crossbar and away.
Both teams might have won it in extra time. With the Salvador crowd now right behind the “Ticos”, Costa Rica substitute Marcos Urena jinked into a shooting position but was foiled by Cillessen, while Sneijder curled a shot on to the crossbar. Then Van Gaal made his change and the Dutch found an instant hero.
Netherlands (3-4-3): Cillessen (Krul, 120); De Vrij, Vlaar, Martins Indi (Huntelaar, 105); Kuyt, Wijnaldum, Sneijder, Blind; Robben, Van Persie, Depay (Lens, 76).
Costa Rica (5-2-3): Navas; Gamboa (Myrie, 79), Acosta, Gonzalez, Umana, Diaz; Tejada (Cubero, 97), Borges; Campbell (Urena, 66), Ruiz, Bolanos.
Referee Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
Brazil v Germany Belo Horizonte, Tuesday, 9pm
Argentina v Holland Sao Paulo, Wednesday, 9pm
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