Van Gaal praises his side’s united front

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Netherlands united: The Dutch players celebrate after beating Costa Rica on penalties, in contrast to previous teams that have been riven by poor morale.

Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal has drawn attention for his tactical surprises but a rare unity among his players has forged a sense the World Cup could finally be theirs.

While in-fighting has marked previous campaigns, team spirit is clear in the current squad – and is testament to the man-management of the Manchester United-bound boss.

After knocking out Costa Rica on penalties to reach the semifinals, Van Gaal said he had never seen such a sense of responsibility among players during his long career.

“Portugal was a fantastic training camp and that really helped merge the group,” he said. “I haven’t checked up on them once.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about the staff, it’s about the players taking responsibility. When I compare that to the other teams I have worked with, it's incredibly strong."

Such collectivism could make the difference as the Dutch aim to finally lift the World Cup after being runners-up in 1974, 1978 and 2010.

European championships in 1996, 2004 and 2012 have been low-points for Dutch harmony, with managers repeatedly failing to unite richly talented but ego-dominated squads.

But in Brazil, players have lined up to sing the praises of Van Gaal, and each other, after their five consecutive wins over Spain, Australia, Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica.

Van Gaal says senior players Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have taken charge and been his voice in what is otherwise a youthful group.

“Compared with the atmosphere at Euro 2012, it’s night and day,” said Sneijder. “I had my doubts before the tournament but they disappeared very quickly.”

The current harmony contrasts with Euro 1996, when Edgar Davids clashed with coach Guus Hiddink, and the 1994 World Cup which Ruud Gullit skipped over a row with boss Dick Advocaat.

The golden generation of Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp and Clarence Seedorf was not able to win any titles, and in 2004, Davids was also in conflict with Advocaat. And at Euro 2012, Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar both spoke openly of divisions.

Fast forward to the present day, and Van Gaal is able to play Kuyt at wing-back and still win praise from the veteran forward.

The aftermath of his masterstroke against Costa Rica was telling. At the end of extra-time, Van Gaal substituted goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for penalties specialist Tim Krul.

When Krul saved two spot-kicks to put the Netherlands into the semi-finals, the first player to race across the pitch and offer his congratulations was, of course, Cillessen.

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Germans fearful of Brazilian brutality ahead of semi-final

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Word of warning: Schweinsteiger believes Brazil's playing style will need to come under scrutiny by his team-mates and the referee.

German star Bastian Schweinsteiger says the referee must pay close attention to tough-tackling Brazil in tomorrow’s World Cup semi-final to ensure fouls do not go unchecked.

Brazil captain Thiago Silva is suspended for the semi-final against Germany in Belo Horizonte having been booked on two occasions at Brazil 2014 while star Neymar is injured.

The Selecao have appealed Silva’s ban, but robust challenges from the hosts marred Friday’s quarter-final win.

Colombia striker James Rodriguez, in particular, was dealt some rough treatment in Brazil’s 2-1 victory.

Only two Brazil players – Silva and goalkeeper Julio Cesar, who conceded a penalty – were booked by Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo despite the Selecao’s 31 fouls against Colombia.

“I am all for hard, clean challenges, but there were one or two tackles which were over the limit,” said Schweinsteiger at a press conference yesterday.

“The Brazilians here aren’t the magicians of old, the team has changed and so has their playing style.

“Hard challenges are definitely are part of their game, it’s something we have to be careful of and the referee too.”

Germany head coach Joachim Loew echoed Schweinsteiger’s sentiments with FIFA yet to announce the referee for tomorrow’s mouthwatering showdown.

“We were flying home when the Colombia game was on, so I didn’t see much of the game, but there were a few hard fouls in what I did see,” said the 54-year-old.

“The Brazilians have technically good players, but they are also very robust and it’s something the referee must pay close attention to.”

Brazil were expecting to hear today about Silva’s ban, incurred after he picked up his second yellow card of the competition for blocking off Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina.

The Brazilian federation (CBF) has lodged an appeal and FIFA head of media Delia Fischer said: “I can confirm we have received an appeal from the CBF and this is being analysed.”

The CBF’s chances of success appear limited – appeals against yellow cards are not usually permitted, only red cards.

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Fiesta greets Colombia’s World Cup stars

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Heroes return: Fans throng the streets of Bogota as the Colombia team is paraded.

Thousands of people mobbed the streets of Bogota to grab a glimpse of their heroes as Colombia’s World Cup squad arrived home yesterday after their historic run to the quarter-finals.

The Colombian capital threw a massive party for coach Jose Pekerman and his squad after the Argentine led Colombia to the last eight for the first time, where they narrowly went down to hosts Brazil 2-1 in Fortaleza on Friday.

The plane carrying the squad from Brazil was greeted at El Dorado airport by a huge arc of water fired by local fire crews and the players were led off the aircraft along a red carpet and to an open-top bus.

Security officers and airport workers scrambled to shake hands and get the autographs of their returning heroes.

“Thanks for always being there, thanks for the support, we love you,” James Rodriguez, the current top scorer at the World Cup with six goals, told the fanatical crowd.

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