SALVADOR, Brazil — Louis van Gaal says his Netherlands team is the most driven group of players he has ever worked with.
That's quite a compliment coming from a 62-year-old coach who has won the Champions League with Ajax and the Spanish and German leagues with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
It showed Saturday night in Salvador when the players battled unsuccessfully for 120 minutes to break down Costa Rica's stubborn defense before last-minute substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul went on as a one-man special team and saved two spot kicks in the shootout while four Dutch veterans stepped in and buried theirs.
"Everyone who has been called in has trained really hard," Van Gaal said after the shootout victory secured a semifinal match against Argentina in Sao Paulo. The way we took our penalties says a lot about how good this team is."
His captain, Robin van Persie, struggled against Costa Rica, but also paid tribute to the team spirit.
"It's bizarre," van Persie said. "We had too many chances. You have to stay strong and focussed in such circumstances. We had to work hard to win this game."
When Van Gaal was hired as Dutch coach in 2012, the team was on a low after crashing out of the European Championship with three straight losses.
He has rebuilt the defense and rejuvenated the team, based around a handful of veterans — Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt, who all scored in the shootout at Arena Fonte Nova.
"It's going fantastically," Van Gaal said. "They all take responsibility. So I'm happy with that."
When it hired him, the Dutch football association set the experienced coach a target of qualifying for the World Cup semifinals.
Now the team that lost the 2010 World Cup final to Spain after extra time and came to Brazil with low expectations faces Lionel Messi's Argentina for a chance to reach a second straight final.
It helps a team's confidence when its manager keeps pulling rabbits out of hats with his inspired substitutions and astute tactical changes.
None more so than Van Gaal's decision to bring on Krul in the last minute of extra time against Costa Rica with World Cup elimination staring him in the face. Van Gaal considered him a better option in the shootout than No. 1 keeper Jasper Cillessen, who hadn't conceded a goal in regulation and extra time.
The Costa Ricans had played for most of the match as if they were prepared to settle for a shootout, but it cost them a semifinal spot as Van Gaal conjured another in his string of successful substitutions in Brazil.
"We are all a bit proud that this trick helped," Van Gaal said.
Now the tactical mastermind will have to come up with a plan to shut down Argentina and its star player in Wednesday's semifinal in Sao Paulo.
"Argentina is a very good team with very strong individual qualities — Messi, for example," he said.