The Rio Report

And now for my next trick..how to keep Messi quiet

The Rio Report

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Have you heard the phrase 'the team is the star'?

Well, it's not true, or at least certainly not in the case of this Holland side.

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There is quite clearly a star, and he's wearing a smart suit with a bright orange tie. His name is Louis van Gaal, and you might have heard of him.

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At the end of extra-time against Costa Rica he made the type of call that can define a career, or leave you looking an utter fool.

After all, no-one replaces a goalkeeper for tactical reasons, do they? Well, Van Gaal does.

The decision to replace Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul in the final moments of extra-time was bold, brave and brilliant.

The Newcastle United goalkeeper guessed right for each of Costa Rica's four kicks, and saved two of them.

Whether or not he is a better goalkeeper than Cillessen (and Van Gaal clearly doesn't think so, having confirmed the Ajax man will start the semi-final against Argentina) this was psychological warfare. It put doubt in Costa Rican minds, with Krul relishing the occasion and pushing the limit of acceptable gamesmanship with his antics before the kicks were taken.

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Krul had saved just two of the previous 20 penalties he had faced for Newcastle, but Holland had lost four of their five previous shoot-outs in major tournaments. Why not try something different?

Indeed, this was classic Van Gaal. This is a man who dropped his trousers to demonstrate to his Bayern Munich squad that he had the cojones to drop any one of them, and every decision he has made in this World Cup has been justified.

The ridicule he would have received had the decision not paid off almost doesn't bear thinking about. Holland were almost laughably dominant against Costa Rica but simply couldn't score. Wesley Sneijder (twice) and Robin van Persie hit the woodwork and their opponents were barely bothering to attack.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was only brought on for defender Bruno Martins Indi at the start of the second period of extra-time, and if Van Gaal's men had lost the shoot-out he would have been ridiculed for not bringing on another forward earlier.

Yet this is why he is taking over at Manchester United; the ability to make the big decisions – something David Moyes perhaps failed to do.

“We felt Tim would be the most appropriate keeper to save penalties,” was Van Gaal's take afterwards.

“You would have seen that Tim dived to the right corner twice. We’re a tiny bit proud this trick has helped us through.”

A tiny bit proud? It would be hard not to give Van Gaal more credit than that.

Recent examples of such a tactic include Sligo Rovers in the 2011 FAI Cup Final and Southend United in the 2013 Johnstone's Paint Trophy area semi-finals. Put simply, this doesn't happen often - except in a sport such as ice-hockey - and certainly not at this level of competition.

Yet there is a danger of the substitution obscuring the game. Costa Rica were marvellous, a side whose journey has been far longer and more profitable than they could ever have anticipated.

They were also lucky, a team clinging on by its fingernails as shots rained down on the superb Keylor Navas.

But this was a slightly strange performance by the Dutch, a team who were at times manic in their pursuit of a goal and at others too laid back and relaxed.

It was also a bad night for Van Persie, who was unable to summon up a repeat of his performance against the Spanish at the same venue 22 days ago (and doesn't that seem like a long time ago now). The Manchester United man was listless, crowded out by the Costa Ricans.

In contrast, Arjen Robben was again superb. Four of Costa Rica's back five were booked for fouling him, and almost every moment of genuine threat came through the Bayern Munich man.

He led the team-talk at the end of 90 minutes, Van Gaal taking a step back and allowing his star man (if not his captain) to take charge.

The theme seemed to be, 'give me the ball' – and why not when he was making such good use of it? Robben had a quarter of Holland's shots, made eight crosses and was fouled eight times. He was at the heart of everything good about the Dutch team.

Wesley Sneijder, the third of Holland's triumvirate of superstars, was an intermittent presence, firing two sublime efforts against the woodwork but struggling to make a regular impact otherwise.

Yet this wasn't a day for individual players to shine.

Instead, it was a day for Van Gaal to once again demonstrate that he has the minerals to make the big decisions on the biggest of occasions.

Now he has to decide how best to counter Lionel Messi. It should be absolutely fascinating.

Julian Bennetts in Sao Paulo

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