Louis van Gaal has gumption to spare
Legend has it that Louis van Gaal once literally showed his testicles to his Bayern Munich players in order to prove a point about, well, having them. After what we saw on Saturday night, you can hardly blame him.
Van Gaal's decision to replace his goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, with the man he deemed to be a penalty specialist, Tim Krul, was unprecedented in the history of the World Cup. It was also without statistical support, as Krul had saved only two of 20 spot kicks for Newcastle. But it worked. Krul saved twice against a team who had calmly launched five perfect penalties past Greece in the round of 16. Whether it worked because Krul really is the better penalty stopper or because Costa Rica were weirded out and lost their focus remains up for debate. Van Gaal won't care. It worked.
This, of course, is further evidence that he is the best possible choice to take over at Manchester United, even if his latest stroke of brilliance means that he'll be a bit later than expected in taking up his new position. Van Gaal has courage and he doesn't care about criticism. Against Mexico, he withdrew his star player and faithful lieutenant, Robin van Persie, and then happily watched his replacement, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, score the winner. By stark contrast, David Moyes admitted last season to leaving Van Persie on because he was worried about what people might think if he gave his top scorer the hook.
But before we get too carried away with the phrase "tactical genius," it's worth considering one thing: In order to make the goalkeeping change in the 120th minute, Van Gaal had to limit himself to only two substitutions beforehand. And given that his team were being held by Costa Rica, perhaps it might have been smarter to make changes earlier that might have prevented the prospect of penalties from even rearing its head. You know, such as not waiting until the 106th minute to give Van Persie some assistance in his one-man battle with a three-man defence.
It was a gutsy call, it paid off and Van Gaal deserves the credit he will receive. But, when you think about it, should the Dutch really have been taken that far in the first place?
Much credit should go to Cillessen too. According to Van Gaal, he wasn't in on the master plan as the coaching staff didn't want to upset his preparations. But even after he had been hauled off moments before the one period of a goalkeeper's life when he knows he can be only a hero and can't possibly be blamed for everything going wrong, he kept his dignity -- apart from a brief lash of a water bottle. His celebrations for his replacement's heroics were genuine and there wasn't a trace of animosity. The hug he shared with Krul afterward was so perfect for the end of a movie that it should have been in slow motion, set to the sound of "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds and then covered with rolling credits.
Van Gaal has confirmed that Cillessen will start against Argentina, and rightly so. Had it not been for his 117th-minute save from Marco Urena, the Dutch would never have even made it to penalties.
Argentina reached the semifinals of the World Cup too and, unlike their rivals Brazil, they've done it with their best player intact. You can expect their fans to remind the hosts of this point with the sensitivity and consideration for which they are renowned. Perhaps tired of standing around and waiting for his teammates to make chances for him, Lionel Messi decided to drop deep and make chances for everyone else, and with great success. And yet he wasn't his nation's best player.
Javier Mascherano was so dominant in the centre of the pitch that you wondered if manager Alejandro Sabella's response to the poor form of his team had been to invest heavily in cloning techniques. Wherever the Belgians broke through, a short, shaven-headed man with eyes that spoke of fire and retribution materialised with extreme prejudice.
At the other end, Marouane Fellaini was rather less effective, especially whenever Messi came near him. He tried leaning into him, he tried buffeting him, he tried kicking him. At one point, shortly before halftime, you suspected he might just give up, lift Messi above his head and break him across his knee like an uncooperative piece of flat-pack furniture. The second half brought sweet relief. Never has one man looked so relieved to be told to have a go up front.
Sadly, Belgium ended a tournament they had begun with so much promise by repeatedly lumping the ball up front to two big men. Manager Marc Wilmots had caught the eye earlier in the campaign with a run of game-changing substitutes, but as the competition dragged on, the question of why the game always needed to be changed grew rather insistent.
Trudging to the last eight and then allowing the match to drift away is not what dark horses do. It is what England used to do. And the English know well that "golden generations" should not be squandered.