SAO PAULO, Brazil — Netherlands Coach Louis van Gaal was at his prickly best, which can mean only one thing: All must be okay in the Dutch soccer world.
Appearing at a news conference in front of more than 100 reporters Sunday, van Gaal was upset with World Cup officials who wanted a player to address the media prior to practice. So he dragged along an injured defender who won’t play against Chile on Monday at noon.
He also was frustrated with FIFA’s scheduling, which allows Brazil to monitor the Netherlands’ game before its own match, potentially aiding the host country’s strategy as it looks ahead to the next round of play. “FIFA plays these tricks,” van Gaal said.
And he was not happy with media members back home who keep divulging information on his injured players and doesn’t seem to appreciate the veteran coach’s sophisticated choreography on the pitch. “The Dutch media needs to be convinced,” he said. “I have to convince them.”
Van Gaal has not been known to bite his tongue, but the fact that he has so much to snipe about is a good sign back in the Netherlands. An aging team that entered this tournament with diminished expectations is very much in the mix. Even before its final group stage match with Chile, the Netherlands was the first nation in the tournament to earn a spot in the round of 16. With a tie or win Monday, the Dutch will wrap up the top spot in Group B.
Even after dismantling Spain and eliminating Australia, a good showing against Chile is essential. The No. 2 team from Group B will likely face Brazil in the next round, whereas the top Group B squad will draw Mexico or Croatia.
“We just want to be first in the group,” van Gaal said, “because the prospects are better.”
The Netherlands is the tournament’s orange-clad talented and dependable bridesmaid. The Dutch have reached the round of 16 in seven of the past eight World Cups. But they’ve never won a championship, having lost in the final match a record three times, including to Spain four years ago in South Africa.
A perennial European power, the Dutch team came to Brazil ranked only No. 15 in the world. But with their opening-match 5-1 thrashing of Spain, the defending Cup champ, the Netherlands saw their fans’ farfetched dreams quickly morph into larger-than-life expectations.
“I actually think this worked to our advantage because nobody expected much from us,” Robin van Persie, the Dutch’s star striker, said last week. “But after such a performance, the dynamics have naturally changed.
“However, as a country, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. We have to stay realistic. . . . We have a long way to go to win this tournament. This is my fifth [major] tournament and I know how these things work: The euphoria vanishes just as quickly as it appears.”
With three goals in two games here, van Persie is still one of the top scorers in the tournament — if he can stay on the pitch. The Manchester United star will miss Monday’s match because of the yellow card – his second of the World Cup — he picked up in a 3-2 victory over Australia.
Even without van Persie, the Netherlands still has plenty of talent. At 30, Arjen Robben is still as fast and shifty as most any player in the tournament and he’s already posted three goals in two games. At one point in the win over Spain, he was clocked running downfield at 19.3 mph.
Van Persie’s absence will force some lineup adjustments, but in truth, that could have happened regardless. Van Gaal can tinker with the best of them, going with five defenders in the early stages of this tournament before switching to a 4-3-3 lineup midway through the Australia match. With Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi out with an apparent concussion, Chile could face more of the 4-3-3 system.
Van Gaal, 62, wasn’t about to reveal his cards on Sunday, though. This tournament could mark his last chance at a World Cup title. He signed on last month to coach Manchester United, becoming the first man from outside Britain to hold the reins to the storied franchise, and he’ll leave the Dutch national team at the conclusion of the tournament.
He knows he has at least one match beyond Monday, but by this point, simply reaching the round of 16 is no victory — not for Dutch fans accustomed to going deeper into the tournament, and not for van Gaal either.
“We want more,” he said.
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