Beware the Netherlands' 12th man

Argentina have superstar Lionel Messi, but the Netherlands' trump card might just be manager Louis van Gaal, writes Matthew Galea.

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With Louis van Gaal at the helm of Holland, it would seem anything is possible.

Argentina has the world’s greatest player in Lionel Messi – who has undoubtedly played a huge role in defining his team’s success to this point – as well as a solid defence which has only conceded three goals all tournament.

But if there was a coach at this World Cup with the tactical tools to break the Argentinians down and contain Messi, it’s van Gaal.

Nullifying Messi will be van Gaal’s greatest challenge yet in this tournament and how effectively he does that will be crucial to Holland’s chances.

If he can manage that, he should be able to have full faith in Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and co to create the necessary opportunities to win.

They couldn’t from open play against Costa Rica, but with 12 goals in the previous four games, it is unlikely another side will be so fortunate again.

A winning habit

In every World Cup, the eventual winner needs at least one game where it rides it’s luck and both sides have had to ride their fair share in getting this far.

Perhaps it would be wrong to say Netherlands’ 4-3 penalty shoot-out victory against Costa Rica was lucky given the overall performance, but even the biggest Oranje supporters would have to admit their team could so easily be out.

Holland, thanks in large part to chief tormenter Robben, was the more worthy winner on the overall balance of play, but this had all the makings of another classic upset.

Similarly, although Argentina dominated general play and the key statistics, Switzerland was not without its own chances, which, if taken, could have seen Messi and co out of the tournament.

Robben once again carried Oranje’s greatest threat, and while for the better part of 60 minutes neither side really looked like breaking through, Holland looked the more likely.

As the game reached extra-time, it was Holland again that looked the more likely, but in the final 10 minutes Costa Rica pushed hard for a late, unlikely winner.

But for Jasper Cillessen, the Ticos would have got the goal too.

Not even five minutes after keeping Holland in the tournament, however, Louis van Gaal made another extraordinary call.

He hauled Cillessen off in the final seconds of play to replace him with Tim Krul, reasoning his extra six-centimetre frame would make all the difference.

It did exactly that.

Van Gaal’s switch, which he has since said was pre-determined, was an absolute masterstroke and Krul played his role perfectly, making two saves in the shootout including the match winner.

It was no fluke, either, as van Gaal has already proven his astuteness off the bench.

Astute substitutions

Against Australia, Memphis Depay came on to score and create a goal to seal a come-from-behind win.

Against Chile, Leroy Fer took to the field after 75 minutes and scored two minutes later, before fellow substitute Depay sealed the win in stoppage time.

Against Mexico, a structural and personnel change, whereby Robben was released to the right with Klaas Jan Huntelaar coming on to replace van Persie also paid huge dividends when the Schalke striker set up Sneijder’s equaliser before slotting home the decisive penalty.

The substitution of Krul for Cillessen was just the latest van Gaal master class, and while the South American sides have the value of the “12th man” in the crowd, Holland’s “12th man” has a direct effect on proceedings.

Matthew Galea is a 22-year-old sports journalist currently working in regional Victoria, Australia and is a part-time armchair manager. To date, he has spent most of his career agreeing with Sir Alex Ferguson, although the better part of last season was spent trying to tell David Moyes how to do his job.