‘A score to settle’: Van Gaal builds up Netherlands for Argentina showdown

After painful 2014 World Cup semi-final the manager wants his squad to puff out their chests in latest encounter

On a grisly, awkward night in São Paulo eight years ago Louis van Gaal could pick from a list of regrets. There was the fact Lionel Messi had been rationed to scraps in a game almost bereft of clear chances; he could reflect that, when one did arrive, Javier Mascherano slid in with Arjen Robben poised to score; then came a shootout and, with it, the kicker.

Van Gaal had made all his substitutions by the time penalties seemed nailed on and could not bring on Tim Krul, who had successfully been deployed for exactly that purpose against Costa Rica. Instead, Jasper Cillessen was powerless to prevent Argentina scoring four times while Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder fluffed their lines. A place in the final slipped away. “I don’t like to think about it,” Van Gaal said this week.

It means the Netherlands’ most recent memory of a glittering, glorious fixture is that of an achingly painful slog but Van Gaal has a chance to send those demons packing on Friday. Moreover, he does not mind who knows it. “We have a score to settle,” he said after both teams had passed their last-16 assignments.

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The statement was typically brusque and perhaps an insight into the reasons why the 71-year-old agreed to return for a third tenure last year. He will be replaced by Ronald Koeman in 2023: this is one last crack at the ultimate prize and the sense is he sees no value in playing things down.

A case in point lay in the marvellously executed first goal against the USA, which was scored by Memphis Depay after a scintillating move. “That was a team goal, that transcends everything,” Van Gaal said. “It was the best moment of this World Cup so far, really a super goal.” He had bristled about the lavish praise of Brazil’s attacking masterclass against South Korea, refusing to let his own side’s accomplishments be swept away.

The Netherlands battle to contain Lionel Messi during their 2014 World Cup semi-final against Argentina.
The Netherlands battle to contain Lionel Messi during their 2014 World Cup semi-final against Argentina. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Van Gaal knows what he is doing. The Netherlands are at their best when confident, a touch swaggery, grace and guile underpinned by steely edges. Eight of his squad are 23 or under and the same number have fewer than 10 caps; the respective figures for Argentina are four and three. A relatively callow group needs its hype man: someone who can deliver home truths but can, in the end, convince them their moments of brilliance are more enduring than mere flashes.

They have not attracted significant attention at this tournament, certainly by the standard of traditional powers, but Van Gaal wants them puffing out their chests. He has launched into the spirit of things, going viral for his dancing skills in a video of the celebratory reception that greeted the squad at their hotel on Saturday evening. Every Netherlands player facing the media this week has mentioned an extraordinary atmosphere wrought by Van Gaal since his comeback. It is usually easy to tell when footballers are trotting out a line but none of it sounds affected.

“The togetherness of the team we have is special,” Virgil van Dijk said on Wednesday, trading jokes with the goalkeeper Andries Noppert in between questions as if to prove the point. Far gone are the days when Dutch egos collided on the pitch or during dinner. They have a Barcelona star in Depay and one of Europe’s most wanted talents in Cody Gakpo, but Van Gaal, who would never stand for nonsense in any case, has moulded a unit where nobody believes exceptions should be made for them.

Van Dijk opted against biting on an invitation to play up a quarter-final against Argentina: such rhetoric is clearly best left to his manager. But there is no escaping the fixture’s piquancy: it stretches back to 1974 and a masterful Cruyff-inspired 4-0 win during the second group stage, which led to the admiring “Naranja Mecanica” epithet in their opponents’ country. That was dismantled in the 1978 final against a disturbing, sinister backdrop in Buenos Aires but the sheen returned when Dennis Bergkamp held the world agog with his last-eight winner in 1998.

“You get brought up with it,” Nathan Aké said of a goal that has stood the test of time. “It’s with you, and we want to create those memories as well.”

Cody Gakpo celebrates with Memphis Depay after scoring for the Netherlands in the last-16 win over the USA.
Cody Gakpo celebrates with Memphis Depay after scoring for the Netherlands in the last-16 win over the USA. Photograph: Stefan Matzke/sampics/Corbis/Getty Images

To have a chance of doing that Aké, Van Dijk and company will almost certainly have to stop Messi again. Vlaar had the game of his life in helping subdue the world’s best player in Brazil but in a cruel twist it counted for nothing.

Perhaps it will be a goalkeeper who washes away the lingeringanguish Van Gaal harbours. Noppert, the Heerenveen player who has played only 54 senior matches at the age of 28, sounded breezy on the subject of facing a Messi penalty. “I’m always ready for that,” he said. “He can also miss, we’ve seen it in a game in this tournament [against Poland]. He’s like us, he’s human. For sure he’s good, but of course I can save penalties.”

The confidence Van Gaal has instilled was there in a nutshell. He will soon discover whether it is enough to light up one of international football’s most compelling rivalries once again.


Nick Ames in Doha

The GuardianTramp

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