Louis van Gaal has his sights set on an emotional World Cup run as the outspoken Netherlands coach prepares for Saturday’s last 16 clash with the United States.
If Van Gaal’s side make it to the latter stages of the World Cup in Qatar it would provide one of the most poignant stories of the tournament.
The 71-year-old came out of retirement to coach the Netherlands last year despite his harrowing battle with aggressive prostate cancer.
Van Gaal had been out of the game since being sacked by Manchester United in 2016, but the combative coach remains a force of nature, as he proved by leading the Netherlands to the World Cup knockout stage after undergoing successful treatment for his illness.
The Dutch topped Group A with victories over Senegal and Qatar and a draw against Ecuador.
Now they face the United States at the Khalifa International Stadium hoping to move a step closer to winning the World Cup for the first time.
The current Oranje crop might not be ranked alongside the Johan Cruyff and Ruud Gullit eras that established the Netherlands as purveyors of football in its purest form.
But Van Gaal, in his third spell as Netherlands coach, rates the 2022 squad as the most gifted of his reigns.
Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk, Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong and emerging PSV Eindhoven forward Cody Gakpo give the Netherlands a formidable spine.
Van Gaal claims the Netherlands could win the World Cup because his squad has a “higher average quality” than the group he led to the semi-finals in Brazil in 2014.
That forthright assessment has been dismissed as hyperbole by admirers of World Cup favourites like Brazil, France and England.
Yet it was in keeping with Van Gaal’s scorched earth approach to management.
Never shy about expressing his opinions to club chairmen, players or the media, Van Gaal has been in typically acerbic mood at the World Cup.
Criticised after the 2-0 win against Qatar for failing to play the expansive style that the Dutch regard as their birthright, Van Gaal didn’t hold back.
“I’m not going to expand on it because I think you have a different opinion of football,” he told a reporter.
“Why don’t you write you think it is terribly boring and you are going home tomorrow because you couldn’t care less?”
When another reporter put it to Van Gaal that fans were “grinding their teeth” on social media about the displays, Van Gaal added: “That’s disappointing but I don’t agree with you.
“That’s your opinion but I don’t think your opinion is the correct opinion. I think everyone would be rather proud we are progressing to the next round.
“I think things are not as bad as you say they are.”
Regardless of his waspish tongue, Van Gaal’s track record demands respect.
After taking charge at Ajax in 1991, he masterminded a golden era fuelled by his development of Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and the De Boer brothers.
Van Gaal won three Dutch titles, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup with Ajax, earning a move to Barcelona, where trophies and tantrums followed in equal measure.
Failing to lead the Netherlands to the 2002 World Cup dented Van Gaal’s reputation before volatile spells with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
At the 2014 World Cup, Van Gaal’s counter-intuitive genius was on display when he sent on Tim Krul just before a shoot-out against Costa Rica and watched as the reserve goalkeeper saved two penalties to clinch the team’s place in the semi-finals.
Van Gaal’s two years with Manchester United were spoiled by underachieving star signings.
But, in what might be his final act as a coach, leading the Netherlands into the last 16 has assured the courageous Van Gaal of a place in the World Cup spotlight for at least one more game.
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