Talented and dramatic ... Netherlands' Arjen Robben, centre, goes down to win a penalty against Mexico. Photo: AP
It’s hard to imagine now, but when the Netherlands squad left for Brazil there were plenty of pessimists back at home who feared that the whole World Cup experience would be an anti climax.
Many believed that the challenge of Group B, where they were lumped alongside defending champions Spain, South American improvers Chile and the outsiders Australia might prove all too much.
Sure, they were confident they would see off the Socceroos - even though the Dutch had, quite surprisingly, never beaten Australia before - but there were fears that not just the tiki taka masters of Spain but the dynamic Chileans would prove too good.
Brilliant manager ... Netherlands' coach Louis van Gaal (left) shares a light moment with forward Memphis Depay at training. Photo: AFP
The pessimists thought third place was the most likely outcome, while even the optimists would have thought winning the group was beyond them and that the best result would be a second place finish and then a round of 16 clash, probably with Brazil, which would see them on the plane back home.
Those negative predictions have proved way off the mark. The Netherlands won all three group matches and scored the most goals of any nation in the opening phase.
While they might have scraped through their round of 16 match in the most extraordinary circumstances with two very late goals to see off a stubborn Mexico, they are now preparing to play Costa Rica in Salvador in the early hours of Sunday morning (AEST) with a World Cup semi-final berth on the line.
Underdogs ... but don't right off Costa Rica, who are led by outstanding forward Bryan Ruiz. Photo: AFP
The fact that the Dutch have defied the gloomy pessimism of some of their countryman can be put down to a few key factors.
Coach Louis Van Gaal has proved himself once again as one of the best in the business both through tactical variation and his ability to motivate his players.
Arjen Robben has claims to being the player of the tournament.
Yes, the flying winger is approaching the veteran stage and exasperates the critics with his tendency to fling himself to the ground whenever he is challenged.
But he has lost none of the pace, power, skill or scoring ability that has made him a big name over the last decade, and he is one of the major reasons why the Dutch have exceeded so many expectations.
Their squad does not contain too many household names, aside from the coach, Robben, Manchester United striker Robin Van Persie, another Dutch legend in Wesley Sneijder and the indefatigable Dirk Kuyt.
In fact, at the back it is young and inexperienced and the injury which has put holding midfielder Nigel De Jong out of the tournament has robbed it of its powerful enforcer.
Yet the Netherlands have shown not just attacking flair but mental strength to come from behind in three of their four games to run out winners.
Against Spain they were 1-0 down and it is easy to forget that had David Silva's chip beaten Jasper Cillessen to put the Spaniards two up, the whole complexion of the World Cup could have been completely different. Instead the goalkeeper stood tall, saved the Manchester City man's effort, and at the other end Robin Van Persie's flying header, one of the most spectacular goals of the tournament, made it 1-1. The Dutch ran riot in the second half to win 5-1, turning the established order on its head.
They also had to dig deep against the Socceroos, coming from behind to win that game 3-2, rather fortuitously perhaps thanks to Mat Ryan's blunder that allowed Memphis Depay to score the winner, before seeing off Chile 2-0.
And in the controversial round-of-16 match against Mexico they once again showed they had deep reserves of self belief.
One down with less than five minutes to go, most nations would have been happy to take the game into extra time. But Sneijder's fiercely struck drive brought them level, and Robben's run into the penalty area solicited the clumsy challenge from Rafa Marquez, which delivered the penalty calmly put away by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. It was an improbable victory in the circumstances, but one which spoke plenty about the Dutch resilience and will to win.
Yes, Robben copped plenty of stick for the theatricality of his tumble, but the truth is that Marquez did make contact and give the Dutchman the opportunity to go to ground. The whole world knows that Robben makes the most of any chance he gets to win a free kick or penalty in this way, so a defender such as Marquez, a hugely experienced international, should have known that.
It’s not an attractive quality and it always detracts from the Bayern Munich man's image; but the reality is that he has always been a wonderful player and is one of the stars of this tournament, at times looking unplayable.
And it should be remembered that at times his reputation sometimes goes before him, so that earlier in the Mexico game there were a couple of occasions when he should have got decisions (including a potential penalty) that he didn't.
Van Gaal has also excelled in this tournament. He has deserted the traditional Dutch structure of 4-3-3 to play with two wing backs and a back three - a 5-3-2 when defending, a 5-3-2 when attacking, but has shown himself flexible enough to change things around when the need arises.
He did so in the game against Australia when the Socceroos were causing the Dutch all sorts of problems and had taken a shock 2-1 lead early in the second half. Van Gaal switched to 4-3-3, because the players, having grown up with such a structure were more familiar with it, and saw his team overcome the outsiders to win 3-2.
Against Mexico he made use of the water breaks (the game was played in Fortaleza in the early afternoon in searing temperatures) to modify his team's set up and it paid dividends.
And he has not been afraid to take on his big name players, hooking Van Persie in the Mexico game and replacing him with Huntelaar, who obliged by scoring the decisive penalty.
The Netherlands are clear favourites to make the semi final, but Costa Rica will not find their underdog status any kind of deterrent.
After all, the team from Central America started as the outsider in all three of their group games against Uruguay, Italy and England and emerged top of the group with seven points after beating the first two and drawing with the third.
They then saw off the challenge of Greece in a penalty shoot out despite having to play for some 50 minutes with just ten men after their centre back Oscar Duarte was sent off shortly after captain Brian Luiz had given them the lead.
The Ticos have shown extraordinary resilience - aside from the injury-time equaliser they conceded against the Greeks, the only goal they have let in was an Edison Cavani penalty against Uruguay in their first fixture.
It is easy to write them off against the powerful Dutch but their record so far suggests that would be folly.
In Ruiz they have a captain who has tremendous touch and ability and is leading by example. Joel Campbell, who is set to return to Arsenal when this competition is over, has led the line superbly, while they have been brilliantly organised by coach Jorge Pinto, who has his team attacking and defending as one.
The loss of Duarte is a big blow and Costa Rica have yet to come up against a front three with the creativity, experience and all round ability of Sneijder, Van Persie and Robben.
But their goalkeeper Keylor Navas is having a wonderful tournament, and they have proved themselves to be very hard to break down. Against Italy and Uruguay they played with wonderful energy and flair, and if they are in that sort of mood they could again upset the applecart.
Still, their match against Greece would have taken a lot out of them, especially as they were a man down for so long, and there will be question marks as to whether they can back up again a few days later.
If the Ticos can keep Arjen Robben quiet then they are in with a better chance than most people give them. This is a Dutch team that has scored more goals than any other side in the tournament - 12 so far - but they are also vulnerable at the back. Australia put two past them, while Spain and Mexico also found the net against the Oranje.
This might be a lot tighter than pundits think - if the Ticos have the mental and physical reserves to continue performing well above their ranking spot.
If the Dutch are to win it is likely to be by a clear margin. If Costa Rica is to stage an upset, expect a low scoring edgy encounter.