The first leg of the World Cup quarter-finals has seen the likes of Brazil and Germany advance to the next round, leaving the Netherlands and Costa Rica to fight for the remaining slot in the semi-finals. The winner of the match will face off against the team that survives the game between Argentina and Belgium. In order for the Netherlands to make it to the semis they will have to send Costa Rica home tomorrow—an attainable task.
The Costa Rican team has certainly attracted the spotlight this World Cup, emerging from its own death group in Group play and then handing Greece a massive upset in the Round of 16. The victory came at a cost, however. Costa Rica will have to face the likes of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie sans Óscar Duarte. The Costa Rican defender was suspended against Greece after two yellow card bookings, and will thus have to sit out for the quarter-final match against the Netherlands.
To make matters worse, Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto does not have his next best alternative to Duarte on hand. The Costa Rica football association reported that left-back Roy Miller suffered a foot injury during training earlier this week. The injury apparently occurred as the team was practicing penalty kicks, a prudent precaution in light of recent knockout matches.
The absence of first and second stringers on defense sets the stage up for the likes of an Oranje obliteration. The Netherlands have logged a total of 12 goals, the most in the 2014 World Cup so far, and boast goal scorers on defense as well as offense. Stefan de Vrij has not only shown his ability to hold the back line together for the Netherlands, but he has also proven himself to be a threat offensively, claiming a goal against Spain in Group play.
The only thing working against the Netherlands for Saturday’s match is the glamour that comes with Costa Rica’s underdog status. The Central American team will likely see the majority of seats at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador occupied by its red and blue-donned fans, however, the mantra of the Netherlands squad is versatility and resiliency.
Oranje coach Louis van Gaal has made it extremely difficult for opposing teams to cope with his cache of formations and lineup tweaks. Van Gaal has demonstrated his willingness to ditch the archetypal Dutch 4-3-3 formation when the circumstances call for such a move. Granted any team can change formation, but not every team can do so as effectively as the Dutch.
Mexico brought the Netherlands its greatest challenge as the Oranje guns up top, Robben and van Persie went up against the likes of Memo Ochoa. Ochoa, who rivals U.S.’s Tim Howard as the best goalkeeper of the tournament, was able to stave off the Oranje assault until the 88th minute of play. Up until that point, the Netherlands were down 1-0 with the threat of a long plane ride home looming in the back of everyone’s mind.
Van Gaal’s decision to take out van Persie in the 76th minute and replace the star scorer with the towering Klaas Jan Huntelaar shifted the game in Oranje’s favor. In a very un-Dutch display, van Gaal had his players launch long ball after long ball to point man Klaas-Jan, and shifted Robben out wide to continue an assault down the flanks. The change in formation not only demonstrated the Dutch capacity to effectively carry out mid-game tactical changes, but also showed that the Netherlands have no problem coming from behind to steal a victory.
Costa Rica has one thing going for them: they have nothing to lose because no one believed they would make it this far. It is a wonder that they made it out of their group. They will be tired after the full-length overtime against Greece, which bodes well for the well-rested and fit Netherlands squad. The task at hand for the Oranje tomorrow in the World Cup quarter-finals: send Costa Rica home.
Commentary by Courtney Anderson
Read more Guardian Liberty Voice coverage of the FIFA World Cup Quarterfinals