It was boring, then desperately exciting, then unbelievably tense. Even when it is hitting the wrong notes, the 2014 FIFA World Cup finds a way to scramble back and find the right tune in the end.
On paper, the Netherlands against Costa Rica was the most one-sided matchup of the quarter-finals, the easiest to predict.
Costa Rica had surprised everyone to even get this far but were surely going to be found out for their lack of quality and experience. The Dutch would finally bring about that ending, as they are filled with world-class, experienced attacking players and organised by a master tactician in Louis van Gaal.
Costa Rica had one trump card in their favour, though—goalkeeper Keylor Navas. The Dutch controlled almost the entirety of the 90 minutes in Salvador but were turned away by Navas at every turn, as the game went into extra time despite a frantic conclusion that saw Wesley Sneijder hit the post and Robin van Persie denied on the line.
In extra time, the Netherlands continued to control matters, but still they could not find a way past the indomitable Navas. Then Los Ticos nearly stole the game at the death—substitute Marco Urena forcing Jasper Cillessen's only real save of the 120 minutes after a fine piece of individual play.
That meant penalties, although Cillessen would not be on the pitch to take part. Staking much of his reputation on the move, Oranje manager Van Gaal made the bold decision to replace Cillessen with back-up Tim Krul. Krul, by all accounts, had been dominating penalty practice in training.
Whatever the thinking behind the move, it worked. Krul saved two penalties, the Dutch players scored all of theirs and the result everyone expected was belatedly secured.
Earlier, in a game that felt like it finished days, rather than hours, before Krul's cameo, Argentina reached the semi-finals with a narrow win over Belgium. Gonzalo Higuain got the game's only goal, lashing home after just eight minutes.
Higuain's strike had a similar impact to the two early goals in Friday's quarter-finals, as the team that suddenly found itself ahead sat deeper and dared its opponents to find an equaliser. Just as France and Colombia failed to do so (or, at least in the case of Colombia, not until it was too late), so too did Belgium.
For once, Lionel Messi was not the hero, but Argentina showed enough defensive resolve to get through. It remains to be seen how big an impact the injury to Angel di Maria, perhaps the side's most important player behind the aforementioned, has on the team as they head for the semi-finals.
Belgium, meanwhile, looked disjointed and short of ideas, having struggled to live up to the quality of their individual parts over the course of the tournament. England fans know how that feels...
The semi-finals are set. Brazil vs. Germany, Argentina vs. Netherlands. In just over a week, one of those countries will be celebrating ultimate glory.
Results in brief, Day 24
Argentina 1-0 Belgium
Netherlands 0-0 Costa Rica, Netherlands win 4-3 on penalties
Argentina will meet the Netherlands in Sao Paulo on Wednesday, July 9.
1. Notes from Day 24
Fallout boy...Van Gaal's goalkeeper swap paid off, but it will be interesting to see if it has further ramifications. Cillessen certainly seemed to be somewhat upset at the move—it is, after all, somewhat emasculating for a goalkeeper to be removed from duty at the most important moment. He will presumably still start the semi-final against Argentina, but will he be in the right mental state to avoid mistakes?
More than just a keeper...Keylor Navas might have saved Costa Rica on more than a few occasions, but his five-man defence played their part. Over the course of the tournament, Los Ticos conceded just two goals—one in the opener against Uruguay and one right at the end of regulation in the last-16 meeting with Greece.
With players of little repute to call upon, their organisation and application put a lot of more vaunted defensives to shame during this tournament.
Sub luck runs out...After affecting matters with his substitutions in all four of his side's previous matches, Belgium manager Marc Wilmots could not repeat the trick for a fifth time. In the end, he and his team went down flailing; Wilmots having brought on Nacer Chadli for Eden Hazard as his side were going to start playing long balls. Perhaps Wilmots really thought he did have the Midas touch...
Angel of fortune...Just as he was for Real Madrid last season, Angel di Maria has been a pivotal player for Argentina in this tournament, proving far more than the tricky winger he was once characterised as in his youth.
But he limped off injured early on against Belgium, with reports indicating he will miss the rest of the tournament, such as this one by the Mirror's Ben Burrows. Without him, Argentina will have to refashion their midfield issue. That is a lot of pressure on Alejandro Sabella, ahead of his country's first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
2. Quote of the Day
That is not normal. You sit the whole match on the bench and then you have to go in and save the penalties. I don't know what I can say.
You sit on the edge and think it might go to extra time and penalties and you have to take the team from the quarter-finals to the semis. It's a dream, it's unbelievable.
- Netherlands goalkeeper Tim Krul, per Eurosport
3. Tweet of the Day
4. Goal of the Day
As it was the only goal, Gonzalo Higuain's strike wins by default. But it was nevertheless a brilliant, instinctive finish.
5. A good day for...
Louis van Gaal. His decision to bring off his goalkeeper for a "penalty specialist" was a World Cup first. If it had backfired—and Tim Krul's club penalty-saving record is far from spectacular—he would have been pilloried for weeks, months and even years. But Krul guessed correctly for every penalty, saving two of them, further adding to the growing perception that Van Gaal is a managerial genius of a rare kind.
6. A bad day for...
Daniel van Buyten. At 36, the central defender will never get another shot at a World Cup. When all is said and done, will he and his team-mates really feel the quarter-finals were the absolute best they could do?
7. Tomorrow's schedule
There are now no games for two days (!), with the first semi-final between Brazil and Germany set to take place on Tuesday. Argentina will then meet the Netherlands 24 hours later.
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