Costa Rica's Cinderella story in the World Cup came to a close Saturday in an excruciating penalty-kick shootout loss, 4-3, to the Netherlands after 120 goalless minutes.
Substitute keeper Tim Krul, who entered the game in the final seconds of extra time, saved two attempts by Costa Rica, which had converted all five of its PKs while beating Greece in the round of 16. Krul’s heroics helped the Dutch overcome another remarkable game by Costa Rican counterpart Keylor Navas, who fought off everything launched at him in regulation and extra time.
Here is why both teams can be satisfied with what they showed in Salvador.
Cool Krul. Dutch coach Louis van Gaal took a calculated risk in removing starting keeper Jesper Cillessen and bringing in Krul for the penalty shootout. The Newcastle United goalie -- who hadn’t saved any of the five penalties he faced in Premier League play last season -- stretched out his 6-foot-3 frame far enough to repel shots hit to his left by Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana.
Costa Rica went first in the shootout and by saving its second kick from Ruiz, Krul opened the door for the Dutch to take a 2-1 lead when Arjen Robben converted their second attempt. The teams held serve heading into the fifth round, which meant if Umana failed the Dutch would win, 4-3. The former Chivas USA and Galaxy defender hit his shot hard and fairly close to the post but Krul’s left glove deflected it away.
“We told Tim Krul that he would be the best goalkeeper for the penalties as he’s bigger; we didn't tell Cillessen, as we didn't want to ruin his preparation and concentration,” said Van Gaal. “There is no question about who will start next game, it will be Cillessen. But we felt Krul was the better choice here -- and he proved that. He guessed the correct way for every penalty.”
Van Gaal’s gambles. The decision to use Krul wasn’t the only crucial change made by Van Gaal. In the round-of-16 comeback win over Mexico, he’d replaced Robin van Persie with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who in the final minutes set up the equalizer and scored the winner himself in a 2-1 victory immediately dubbed “The Miracle of Fortaleza,” at least in the Netherlands.
The Dutch bombarded the Costa Rican goal for most of the game and hit the woodwork three times. Midfielder Wesley Sneijder struck the frame with a sharply swerving free kick and hit the crossbar with another attempt in extra time. But van Persie wasn’t finding much space as the lone forward, so at the start of the second period of extra time, Van Gaal took out defender Bruno Martins Indi and sent Huntelaar up top with Van Persie to give another option up front for Robben, whose incessant running and slick passes wearing tearing apart the Costa Rican defense.
The move reduced the Netherlands to three in the back plus attacker Dirk Kuyt on the right side, and almost proved costly, as Costa Rica’s slumbering attack awoke to twice threaten the Dutch goal. Cillessen’s only difficult moment of the game came with three minutes left when substitute Marco Urena blasted a shot from close range that he went down to block.
The Dutch penalties were converted ruthlessly by van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Kuyt. (Huntelaar had converted the stoppage-time penalty by which the Dutch had squeezed past Mexico.) The Netherlands hadn’t been in a penalty shootout since the 2004 European Championships, during which they knocked out Sweden, 5-4, after a 0-0 tie in the quarterfinals.
Robben runs and runs. If their teams reach the final, the Golden Boot award for most valuable player could be a photo finish between Robben and Argentine icon Lionel Messi.
Messi is among the tournament’s top scorer with four goals, but Robben has been the most important player for the Netherlands through its five matches. Though Costa Rica pulled nine men back in a 5-4-1 formation when defending, it couldn’t stop Robben, whose scything runs and dribbles carved it open time and time again. He also moved centrally for awhile and slipped a pair of through balls that just failed to connect with van Persie.
According to FIFA stats, he penetrated the attacking third 32 times with passes or dribbles. He was one of eight Dutch players to run more than 12 kilometers during the match as they took 20 shots to six for Costa Rica.
Navas is the man, Ticos are the team. Officially credited with seven saves, Navas played a blinder, as most of those shots on goal tested him severely. Costa Rica was within a shootout of becoming the first Concacaf team to reach the semifinals since the U.S. achieved that feat at the 1930 World Cup that was played with fewer teams and under a different format.
By repeatedly staving off the Dutch he was selected Man of the Match to complete a sharp World Cup showing during which Costa Rica conceded only two goals while beating Uruguay and Italy in regulation, and tying England, Greece and the Netherlands. It is only the third Concacaf nation to defeat both South American and European competition in the same World Cup: Mexico beat Croatia and Ecuador in 2002 and the USA defeated Belgium and Paraguay in 1930.
Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals without striker Alvaro Saborio, its leading scorer in qualifying, and defender Bryan Oviedo, its starting left back. Both were injured and left off the 23-man squad.
“This World Cup has been a great experience and we're leaving with our heads held high,” said Navas. “Everyone did a good job. We left everything on the field. Nobody likes to lose and it's hard. We didn't lose any game -- a penalty shootout isn't a defeat.”