Wednesday, July 09, 2014

2014 World Cup: Van Gaal thrives as Oranje charge

Germany's Joachim Löw characterised last night's semi final as a "battle of the continents." Europe 7. South America 1.

Tonight it's time for round two. Argentina v the Netherlands. It will take a stunning performance from one of them to dislodge Germany as tournament favourites on

Argentina will, once again, rely on the genius of Messi. The Dutch will look to Arjen Robben and hope Robin van Persie's guts have cleared up.

And they'll also look to the touchline, seeking inspiration from Louis van Gaal. It's safe to assume that he'd have it no other way.

After the understated (maybe overwhelmed) approach of David Moyes, his successor at Manchester United is unlikely to be blown off course by a lack of confidence.

The stories of Van Gaal's often unconventional methods abound, the managerial heavyweight literally prepared to show his players that he's got the balls for the job.

Yet when he was announced as Manchester United manager a feeling persisted that this might be a fading superstar, still capable of talking the talk but with the true glory days left behind, now just statistics in the record books.

Intentionally or not, Van Gaal has spent the last few weeks in Brazil roaring against that theory.

There was the demolition that dethroned Spain in just the third game of the tournament. There was the water break tactical switch against Mexico that left him telling reporters that "this manager wanted to win."

And then on Saturday night the brinkmanship of replacing his goalkeeper just before the end of extra time.

The drama and sense of timing meant it must have appeared to some Costa Ricans that Tim Krul wasn't just a fine goalkeeper but also a penalty saving Superman who could read their thoughts.

A gamble but a calculated one. Krul confident that his manager needed him and believed in him. The Costa Ricans left wondering what the hell was going on. The manager got his calculations right. When a gamble pays off people forget what the original risk was.

Adaptable. Ready to spring a surprise or two. And absolutely comfortable in the cult of the manager. Throughout the tournament - perhaps to shield his players, perhaps through narcissism - he has in fact tossed the press line after line to help write the cult of Louis van Gaal.

Whatever happens tonight, the Dutch have made the final weekend of the World Cup. There were concerns that such protracted engagement in Brazil might work against Van Gaal making the quick impact at Old Trafford that Manchester United to make up the ground lost during the non-season they endured under Moyes.

Yet such has been his appetite for the fray, it seems that United will now welcome a manager rejoicing in his own ability and apparently ready to find a way past any obstacles in his way.

Louis van Gaal might not win the World Cup. But few managers will have ever found a month of tournament competition such a rejuvenating experience.

2014 World Cup: German brilliance shatters Brazil

Any team shipping seven goals in a World Cup is unusual.

Brazil shipping seven goals in a World Cup semi final?

In Brazil?

Astonishing, shocking, unbelievable. But real. A dream destroyed in Belo Horizonte as the world watched.

We knew this Brazilian team had its limitations. Limitations that made this an unfortunate Seleção vintage with which to hunt down the ghosts of the 1950 World Cup final.

And we knew that this was a richly talented Germany.

We couldn't have imagined that Brazil's deficiencies would be so ruthlessly exposed, that Germany's superiority would be so utterly complete.

Thomas Müller being left unmarked for the opening goal seemed to amplify Brazil's failings and fortify Germany's superiority. A perfect storm stirring up the almighty mismatch that followed.

A record semi final defeat. A record defeat for a host nation at the World Cup. A record defeat for Brazil. A first competitive defeat at home since 1975.

Because this is Brazil, because this is Brazil's World Cup, it's inevitable that even in defeat they remain central to the narrative.

We shouldn't let that detract from Germany's achievement. They saw weakness and set about dismantling the most successful national team in history.

They did it brilliantly, thrillingly. 7-1. And it could have been more.

It's Joachim Löw who takes his side into Sunday night's final. At 7-0 I felt his main challenge might be getting his players to forget the semi final and focus on Sunday evening. Then Brazil scored and the German players raged at themselves for conceding.

This is a team determined to meet its own high standards. The goal, maybe the most futile ever scored in a World Cup finals, robbed them of the perfect performance and that was, however briefly, intolerable for them.

And what now for Brazil? First, the huge anti-climax of Saturday's third place play-off.

And then the inquests, inquiries, recriminations, blame and villains.

A country that pimped itself out to Sepp Blatter's FIFA for the chance to announce its arrival as a global power. Let down by the very export that sustained its global profile for decades before its economic emergence.

It will be interesting to see if anti-World Cup protests gather pace in the next few days. Interesting too to see how a country that doesn't do footballing humiliation raises itself for the Olympics in two years. Brazil's politicians got what they wanted - the world came to Brazil.

The football team being found wanting in such staggering style was never part of the plan. Spending $11 billion has been an expensive way to find out that their footballing powers have, for now, deserted them.

Modern football's marketing machine demands that we treat almost every game, every goal, every transfer, every bite as an incident of historical significance.

That is, of course, bollocks. But last night felt like it could have been football's first "I remember where I was..." moment of the internet age. The sort of game, the sort of result, that will be passed down the generations.

Like Real Madrid at Hampden in 1960. Like Brazil's win over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final.

And like Uruguay's win over Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final.

Brazil set out to right the wrongs of 64 years of hurt. They ended up as little more than helpless incompetents as Germany wrote another chapter of football history.

And finally...

A fantastic quirk of scheduling on BBC 2 England after the game:

World Cup TV listing, the Scottish Football Blog