The Netherlands start as firm favourites for their World Cup quarter-final against Costa Rica on Saturday but will take nothing for granted when they meet the tournament’s surprise package, who have already seen off three former world champions.
After finishing above England, Italy and Uruguay in Group D, Costa Rica are seeking to become the first team from the CONCACAF region, the confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean nations, to reach the World Cup semi-finals since the United States at the first edition in 1930.
The Netherlands had a last-gasp escape in the previous round, scoring twice in the final moments to beat Mexico, and forward Arjen Robben says his side will not be taking their opponents lightly at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador.
“Costa Rica have a very good team, they have already proved that in their group, which was very tough,” Robben said. “They’ve been really impressive and we’ll have to prepare very well if we’re going to beat them.”
Despite Costa Rica’s impressive performances, many observers believe the Netherlands have too much firepower for them after scoring 12 goals in their four wins in Brazil so far.
Robben, Wesley Sneijder and captain Robin van Persie present a fearsome attacking trio and showed how invaluable experience is when they did not panic despite being on the cusp of elimination against Mexico.
De Jong setback
However, they must replace hard man Nigel de Jong in midfield after he suffered a groin injury that will likely keep him out for the rest of the World Cup.
While coach Louis van Gaal has played his cards close to his chest, speculation continues on whether Daley Blind will be moved from left back to central midfield or Jonathan de Guzman or Jordy Clasie come in for De Jong.
Costa Rica must contend with the absence of utility back Roy Miller and the suspended Oscar Duarte but hope goalkeeper Keylor Navas, hero of their shootout triumph over Greece in the previous round, will recover from the shoulder injury that curtailed his ability to train this week.
The performance of their defensive unit has been a major part of their success in Brazil. Costa Rica have conceded only twice at the tournament – one of the goals from a penalty.
But any chance of success probably rests on the attacking prowess of Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz, who is well known to the Dutch having spent two seasons at Twente Enschede and the last six months on loan at PSV Eindhoven. “Bryan is very quick and sharp, we’ll have to watch him carefully,” Dutch defender Ron Vlaar said.
At this point in the World Cup, the Dutch know plenty about Costa Rica, once one of the surprise packages of the tournament. What they may not have heard is that Costa Rica’s Jorge Luis Pinto learned his coaching from the Dutchman who invented ‘total football.’
Pinto, a well-travelled Colombian, studied at the University of Cologne early in the 1980s when Dutch coach Rinus Michels was coaching the city’s Bundesliga club. “In those years I spent my time watching him training and talking to him. When I didn’t have classes, I went to see the club practice. I saw many things and learned a lot,” he said.
Michels was a good teacher, a few years later he would lead the Netherlands to its one and only international title, the 1988 European Championship, having pioneered the ‘total football’ approach, where players can change their positions during a game.
Now Pinto aims to stop the Dutch taking another step towards their first world title. Ruiz said he has shared what he knows about the Dutch players with his coach.
“Pinto asked me about it and I provided a bit of analysis of the ones I know. I haven’t had any contact with Memphis or Georginio. Of course, the day of the match, we will greet each other, chat a bit and then get focused,” he said.