By Mark Doyle in Salvador
Louis van Gaal argued on the eve of Netherlands' World Cup quarter-final clash with Costa Rica that it would not be the "most fantastic" team that triumphed in Brazil, but the strongest squad. "The best 23 players will be champions." Every man, he argued, has a role to play. On Saturday evening at Arena Fonte Nova, Netherlands' No.23, Tim Krul, made one of the most dramatic cameo appearances ever seen on the game's grandest stage.
With less than 60 seconds of 120 scoreless minutes remaining, Van Gaal decided to change his goalkeeper, replacing Jasper Cillessen with Krul. It was a remarkable decision, as just moments beforehand Cillessen had pulled off a fantastic save with his feet to deny Marcos Urena a winning goal.
However, it proved a masterstroke on Van Gaal's part, with Krul saving twice in the shootout. Not only that, he guessed right every single time. Costa Rica, remember, had scored all five of their spot-kicks in their shootout success over Greece. They had been fearless. Here, though, they looked stricken with nerves. Van Gaal's decision to change his goalkeeper had been a key psychological blow in what had been up until that point a tight tactical contest.
Just three weeks previously, every Netherlands touch was greeted with an 'Ole!' by locals revelling in a Dutch dismantling of defending champions Spain. Upon their return to Salvador, they were being booed inside the opening 10 minutes for having to temerity to build patiently from the back.
The crowd here have grown accustomed to goals, to excitement. Neither side offered any of either during the opening 45 minutes. Costa Rica, of course, were only too happy to sit back and soak up pressure but the neutrals were on the side of the tournament's surprise package, so it was hardly surprising that the crowd took their frustration out on the favourites.
Unlike their Group B opener against Spain, Netherlands had to take the game to their opponents. It did not appear to suit them, as it allowed them to use the pace of Arjen Robben on the break only intermittently.
Consequently, the predominantly Brazilian crowed grew bored by what they seeing - wave after wave of Dutch attack being excellently dealt with by an incredibly well-organised Costa Rican back-line - and became more preoccupied with voicing their support for their fallen hero, Neymar.
The Brazilian, of course, had suffered a World Cup-ending injury in his country's 2-1 win over Colombia the night before. At times, it seemed like Costa Rica were trying to boot Robben out of the tournament as well, with the Ticos back-line taking it in turns to take out the Dutch winger. Michael Umana, Johnny Acosta and Giancarlo Gonzalez were all booked for fouls on Robben, while Junior Diaz was fortunate to escape a second yellow in the dying seconds of normal time.
By that point, Netherlands were wondering what they had to do to beat Keylor Navas in the Costa Rica goal. The goalkeeper made a succession of remarkable saves and even when he was beaten by Robin van Persie, Christian Bolanos and Yeltsin Tejeda somehow combined to deflect the striker's goal-bound strike up onto the frame of the goal.
The woodwork came to Costa Rica's rescue on two further occasions with Wesley Sneijder striking the post with an in-swinging free-kick before rattling the bar in the dying minutes of extra-time.
In that sense, the Dutch warranted the good fortune that comes with winning any shootout. However, in football, as in life, you make your own luck. And there was nothing fortuitous about the fact that Krul was on the field for this game's decisive moments.
Indeed, Van Gaal revealed afterwards that he had decided beforehand that Krul would be introduced in the event of a shoot-out, primarily on account of having a "longer reach" than Cillessen, but also as part of an ingenious plan to unsettle the Costa Ricans. Krul had only saved two of the previous 20 spot-kicks he had faced but the Ticos penalty takers were not to know that. All they saw was what looked like a penalty specialist entering the fray.
Shootouts, as we are so often told, are a lottery and Van Gaal took a major risk in replacing his first-choice keeper with a who had not seen any previous game time in Brazil. However, this was a gamble based on a breathtakingly brilliant bluff - and it paid off spectacularly.
Ultimately, luck had had nothing to do with it. It had all been about faith. Van Gaal's faith in himself. And his 23.
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