Van Gaal's gamble pays big dividends
SALVADOR, Brazil -- Here are three quick thoughts after the Netherlands ended Costa Rica's Cinderella World Cup run in a penalty shootout after a breathtaking scoreless draw at Arena Fonte Nova, advancing to the semifinals -- where they'll meet Argentina in Sao Paulo on Wednesday -- for the second consecutive tournament.
1. Bravo, Ticos
They may have lost in the cruelest way imaginable, but Costa Rica won the respect of the world with their performance in Brazil. The tiny Central American nation wasn't beaten in regulation in five games, and shut out Uruguay, Italy, England and the Netherlands along the way.
Anyone who thought the Ticos were going to roll over in this match wasn't paying attention. Watching Costa Rica in this tournament, you knew they were going to be extremely tough to put away. Jorge Luis Pinto's team wasn't remotely fazed by the all-world Dutch. Indeed, the toughest spell for the Ticos on Saturday night -- aside from the frenetic final minutes of regulation -- was the first quarter hour of the match, when only keeper Keylor Navas' heroics kept them in the game. Costa Rica settled in well after that, but the ubertalented Oranje had the better of the play.
But while the Ticos' stout defense bent on multiple occasions, it never broke. Striker Marco Urena nearly stole a winner in the second period of extra time, but Jasper Cillessen came up with a key stop in the 117th minute. Alas, it wasn't to be in penalties, and tired legs (Costa Rica also went to PKs against Greece in the round of 16) may have contributed to Bryan Ruiz's and Michael Umana's failure to convert their spot kicks. Still, Pinto -- easily the coach of the tournament, no matter what happens from here -- and his players leave the country with their heads held high, even if the scent of the semifinals will linger in their nostrils in the days and weeks ahead.
2. Van Gaal's gamble paid off
It's not often you see a coach pull his starting keeper just before a shootout begins, especially on this stage. But that's exactly what Dutch boss Louis van Gaal did when the 120 minutes were up, replacing Cillessen with penalty specialist Tim Krul. Krul, who plays his club ball for Newcastle United, had stopped just two of 20 PKs in the Premier League coming in.
But he's two inches taller than Cillessen, and Van Gaal banked on that extra wingspan giving his team the edge, even if Krul was coming in cold, and even if Cillessen was none too happy about being yanked. Krul also had the advantage of studying video of the Costa Rican penalty takers' tendencies against the Greeks, which may have proved decisive in the end. Ruiz and Umana didn't miss the target; Krul guessed correctly and stopped both players, justifying Van Gaal's risky decision.
3. Keylor Navas has been the best keeper in Brazil
There's been no shortage of sensational goalkeeping at this World Cup. Belgium's Thibaut Courtois, Germany's Manuel Neuer, Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa and Tim Howard of the USA have all put in memorable performances. But the 27-year-old Navas was even better. He allowed just two goals in Costa Rica's five games, and he saved his finest outing of all for the Dutch.
His series of acrobatic stops -- a diving redirection of Arjen Robben's free kick in the 38th minute may have been the most impressive -- kept the Ticos in the game in the first half. But Navas was also quick to come off his line to put out fires, and his presence as the anchor of Pinto's defensive scheme clearly gave his teammates confidence. He needed some help from the post and the crossbar (as well as defender Yeltsin Tejeda) later on, but Navas still came up with a couple of late key stops to get the game to the shootout. And despite the loss, he was still, correctly, named man of the match.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.