Coach has right touch for the Dutch

Coach Louis van Gaal has led the Netherlands into World Cup semifinals against Argentina

Perhaps it was a joke. Or more mind games from a man who has become a master at them.

Either way, Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal — better known as Louis to friends and family — caused quite a stir last spring when he said the only job he really wanted was to coach a team in the English Premier League.

"Either that," he said "or I will retire to Portugal with my wife."

Never mind that, at the time, Van Gaal was preparing the Dutch national team for the World Cup. Or that, at just 62, he was at the end of a six-year run that had seen him win league titles in Germany and Holland, reach the finals of the Champions League and qualify for the World Cup in Brazil with a Dutch team that had gone winless in the Euros just two years earlier.

Despite all that he still had one last thing on his bucket list.

"My ambition is to coach a top team in the Premier League," said Van Gaal, who got his wish in May when he was hired by Manchester United. "I want to win the league title in a fourth country. That's my objective and I want to fulfill it."

That will have to wait because Wednesday in Sao Paulo, Van Gaal will be coaching the Netherlands against Lionel Messi and Argentina in the World Cup semifinals, trying to get the team back to the final in which it lost to Spain in extra time four years ago.

Although Van Gaal has been a success everywhere he has gone — in 23 years as a club coach in four countries, he has lost fewer than 20% of his games — no one saw this coming. The Dutch were humiliated in the 2012 Euros, bickering among themselves while scoring only two goals in three consecutive losses, their worst performance in the world's second-biggest international competition.

Van Gaal, who had failed to qualify Netherlands for the 2002 World Cup in his first try at coach, was brought back more to stop the bleeding than to perform a resurrection. Instead, his team sailed through the qualifying tournament unbeaten, outscoring opponents 34-5 in 10 games. And in 27 games with the national team this time around Van Gaal has lost only twice, both times in friendlies.

"Compared with the atmosphere at Euro 2012, it's night and day," midfielder Wesley Sneijder, whose late goal against Mexico in the round of 16 kept the team from being eliminated, told reporters. "I had my doubts before the tournament, but they disappeared very quickly. This group gets along extremely well. The atmosphere is super."

Striker Dirk Kuyt, who, at 33 has seen his international career revived under Van Gaal, says none of the Netherlands' success would have happened without the coach getting everyone on the same page. "He is the perfect manager to make that happen," he told reporters.

And now, in perhaps his most masterful coaching job yet, the Dutch are in the World Cup semifinals. Known for a demanding, no-nonsense approach, Van Gaal has softened, lingering after training in Brazil to kick a ball around with some of his players' children. He also has given veterans such as Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie — his captain here and, most likely his captain with Manchester United — a voice in managing an otherwise young team.

Unfortunately for the Dutch, Van Persie is in doubt for the semifinal after coming down with a stomach problem. Van Persie trained separately Tuesday with defender Daryl Janmaat, and Van Gaal said both were suffering "stomach and intestinal problems."

Van Gaal also has become tactically unpredictable, changing his lineup and strategy game by game — even half to half. His most surprising — and successful — move came just before the tiebreaking penalty shootout with Costa Rica in last week's quarterfinal when Van Gaal pulled regular goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for backup Tim Krul. If the Dutch had lost, it would have been remembered as one of most boneheaded moves in World Cup history. Instead, Krul stopped two shots and the previously forgotten Kuyt converted his penalty try, turning both into heroes when the Netherlands advanced.

Back home, where Van Gaal is now called everything from a genius to a savior, computer screensavers with his head atop Rio de Janeiro's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue have become popular. And voters in an online poll picked him as the best national team coach in Dutch history even though three predecessors made it to the World Cup final.

Van Gaal may need another miracle Wednesday if he is to match that. Argentina is the only team in this World Cup that has won all five of its games and in Messi it has a player who is on a mission to claim the one thing — a World Cup title — that has eluded him in an otherwise unparalleled career.

The Dutch needed penalty kicks to win their quarterfinal match. And against Mexico, in the game before that, the Dutch didn't score until the 88th minute, then needed a penalty kick in stoppage time to win.

After scoring a tournament-high 10 goals in group play, the Dutch have scored once from the run of play in two elimination games. But the Netherlands has done just enough to win, and Van Gaal said that makes his team dangerous.

"We're not a great team, but a team which is difficult to beat," he said. "We have always said that it will not be the best or most fantastic team that is going to win, but the best 23 players will win this.

"We all have one goal, we are all supporting each other, complementing each other. That's what the Dutch team is, all 23 players. We've been able to achieve outstanding results. The Dutch team will fight right to the very last minute to become world champions."

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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