It WAS the sight of Tim Krul vigorously warming up that provided the first hint that something unusual could be about to happen. Substitute goalkeepers don’t tend to start exercise routines a few minutes before the end of extra-time in a game that seemed certain was going to penalties.
Remarkably, Netherlands goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, the man who was doing all he could to ensure his side reached as far as a shoot-out after Costa Rica perked up as the end of extra-time, has revealed he was unaware of the plan that saw him give way to Krul.
He had good reason to feel he should have been considered trustworthy enough in the shoot-out. Cillessen made a superb stop from a shot from around 12 yards out to deny the Costa Rica substitute Marco Urena a likely winner in the dying minutes. It has now been established that the 25-year-old Ajax goalkeeper has not to date saved a penalty at senior level.
He has already been beaten by two penalties in this tournament alone, against Spain and Australia in the group stage. Hardly a crime that demanded he was dropped but it was something that was clearly playing on Louis van Gaal’s mind. This was no decision based on a flash of inspiration as the Dutch manager stood on the sidelines.
As a shoot-out neared, Van Gaal prepared to activate the plan that it appears he had only discussed with goalkeeper coach Frans Hoek, who the manager was quick to hug when Krul saved David Umana’s crucial fifth penalty. Hoek relayed the details to Krul. “I heard about the plan shortly before we entered the bus,” Krul explained yesterday. “Frans asked me to keep it to myself.”
But Krul must have already suspected that he was being groomed for such a role. At the end of each training session Van Gaal has been asking Krul to go in goal when “the big name players”– Van Gaal’s words – stayed behind to practice penalties. The manager prefers the longer reach of Krul in these situations while he is also well aware of the goalkeeper’s confidence when it comes to penalties.
Early in Krul’s Newcastle career he saved twice for the under-18s in a youth cup shoot-out and then stepped up to score the winning penalty himself. His heroics only extended to saving two of Costa Rica’s five penalties on Saturday in Salvador but they were still decisive contributions which took his country to the World Cup semi-final. Understandably, Van Gaal has been expressing some quiet satisfaction.
“I don’t think any of the other players knew why but this was the reason. I did it on purpose,” explained Van Gaal yesterday as people were still shaking their head at the sheer brazen genius. He admitted after the match that he was “a little bit proud that the trick worked” although there is a suspicion the translator was not being completely faithful with his interpretation of the manager’s comments. It is highly unlikely that Van Gaal used the phrase “a little bit”.
However, the manager is entitled to feel he is at the top of his game at present, which is welcome news for Manchester United supporters. They know they are getting someone who has proved it again and again at the highest level. David Moyes is many things, but he cannot be considered swashbuckling. Overly cautious, perhaps.
Van Gaal has pulled off so-called ‘tricks’ like this many times before. He is clearly happy to underline that no player should be bigger than the manager. There was no hesitation when deciding to withdraw skipper Robin van Persie in the last-16 tie against Mexico as the striker toiled and the Dutch were trailing by a goal.
Again, Van Gaal had reason to feel vindicated. Replacement Klaas-Jan Huntelaar contributed to the move that saw Wesley Sneijder equaliser and then scored the winner from the penalty spot himself. Going back further, Van Gaal replaced Jari Litmanen with Patrick Kluivert, his current assistant with the national team, and saw the player score the late goal that won the European Cup for Ajax against AC Millan in 1995.
He clearly knows what he is doing. The result is that Van Gaal gains respect, even from those who have a case to feel let down by him.
Cillessen says he now regrets his brief temper tantrum on Saturday. Nearly everyone watching sympathised with how he felt as he kicked over water bottles on his way to the dug-out. “I apologise for my behaviour after being substituted,” he said. “I didn’t expect that to happen so it took me by surprise. I made a good save just three minutes before the end and felt I was in good shape. But the coach made the decision. I respect that.”
In typical Dutch style, both Cillessen and Krul were presented for interview yesterday at their training base in Rio. Normally in such circumstances, you might expect that the players would be kept away from media scrutiny and potential unwelcome questions about the state of their relationship. But this isn’t the way with the Dutch. They were presented as a pair. The Dutch were clearly themselves reveling in the tale and even Cillessen, the one who you would expect to be less than thrilled at having to relive this strange episode in his career, tried his best to share the football world’s fascination with what is already one of the great World Cup stories.
Cillessen said he made “the quickest run of my life” to congratulate Krul, while Krul in turn, said he stressed that if it had not been for Cillessen, then they would not be talking together yesterday. They would be on the way home.
Van Gaal has confirmed that Cillessen will start versus Argentina on Wednesday and it could be that Krul does not feature in this World Cup save for his decisive cameo on Saturday night, one that will be undoubtedly recalled in pub quizzes for years to come.
“This is my role in the team,” explained Krul. “The coach told me this was his plan for penalties so I made sure I was focused and ready. When it got to the end of extra-time I thought to myself ‘this is my day,’ and it was. I was so focused and aggressive. I told their players I knew which way they were going to go but I spoke in Dutch and I think Bryan Luis [who has been on loan at PSV Eindhoven from Fulham] was the only one who understood me.”
“But it was a great moment for me, a story everyone will be telling for many more years,” he accepted. “I am so proud that the coach has this confidence in me. But the best thing is that Jasper was the first one to congratulate me after I saved to win. This shows the togetherness in our squad.”
Much has already been made of Krul’s actions when yelling at the Costa Rican penalty-takers, a tactic he said he first used before saving a penalty from Frank Lampard against Chelsea. Tellingly, there were no complaints from Costa Rica.
“I did nothing crazy,” said Krul. “I didn’t shout in an aggressive manner. I told them I knew where they were going because I had analysed it. I was trying to get in their heads. It worked.”
He has certainly come a long way from 2007 when he lost seven goals while on loan for Falkirk against Rangers.