As long as there’s Louis…Europe has hope.

Van Gaal and the Netherlands marched on to six days of rest and then a World Cup quarter-final date with Argentina. They put three past the United States here as Van Gaal completely outwitted American manager Gregg Berhalter. His tactics, with wing-backs to the fore, and the totems of this team, Memphis Depay, Virgil van Dijk and Nathan Ake, Frenkie de Jong and a new giant between the posts, all continued to develop and grow handsomely into Qatar’s World Cup.

It wasn’t always pretty and the same critics back home — Marco van Basten and Rafael van den Vaart primarily — were barking and cribbing. No matter. The Dutch are unbeaten since Van Gaal returned 16 months ago. They’ve won three and drawn one here, scoring eight along the way. He has them moving places when others aren’t.

“I get enough appreciation from the people around me,” Van Gaal said afterwards. “I know the media don’t always report in a positive way, that’s always a given in football. But a lot of top countries didn’t progress and we still have three matches to go. I’ve been talking about this for a year: we can become world champion.”

Van Gaal will of course tell you how he’s been right about everything for 50 years now. But he’s actually spot on in regards to that latter point. The Dutch can think about three more games here. Many can’t.

Waking up Saturday and strolling through Doha, there wasn’t much time to survey the wreckage of the final round of group games. This relentless World Cup rolled on whether you were still on board or not, no break day before the start of the knockout games for the first time ever. But even in a tighter window of time, it was still clear that the wild four-day stretch from Tuesday to Friday had taken a heavier toll on Europe than anywhere else.

The red line of Doha’s metro system runs from the Lusail Stadium, which will host the final two weeks today, to Hamad Airport, where elimination ultimately leads you. The faces and voices going the opposite direction, away from the stadium, yesterday morning told a story. The majority were European.

When Serbia were the final team eliminated on Friday night we were left with the most diverse knockout stage bracket in the tournament’s history, featuring eight European teams, three Asian, two South American, two African and the US as CONCACAF’s last team standing. Europe has fared worse in the past, with just six team progressing in 2010 and 2014, but that was always at the expense of South American teams. As European thoroughbreds and dark horses alike fell here, they landed at the feet of less-heralded nations. Belgium were undone by Morocco, Germany by Japan, Denmark given a nightmare by Australia and Tunisia, the Serbs screwed it up against Cameroon.

Into the debris field strode Van Gaal, the oldest manager here prowling around the place like an aged lion, spending much of his days lounging under a tree scratching himself but rousing and roaring when required. He’s 71 now and still recuperating from a battle with prostate cancer. But the glint is still there, the sparkle that narrows into that stare. He’s relished jousting again with the Dutch press who have accused his team of being too boring and spent much of his pre-match press conference on Friday teasing a move to take over Belgium once this tournament ends.

It all felt more like trademark Van Gaal wit rather than anything with intent. The expectation is very much that this is his last rodeo.

About 45 minutes before kick-off he strolled out and parked himself in the huge expanse of green that is the technical area here at Khalifa, covering the full width of the athletics track underneath. He’s a bit more gaunt in the face now but the little chin still juts out just enough, as he took a slow lingering look around and then just stood there watching his players. Those back home know this is no great Dutch vintage out there. They have shortcomings and holes, injuries too. But they have him at the helm and that’s enough to dream. As far as a stylistic match-up, Berhalter’s young side shaped as tricky, awkward, a fresh and potentially vexing challenge to Europe’s master coach. How he laughed at all of the above. This was a breeze, a Saturday stroll only briefly forced off the trail when Memphis went walking with 15 minutes left and opened the door for the Americans to get back into it. But the Dutch closed it just as quick.

It finished 3-1 but could have been 6-1 had Van Gaal’s side been as clinical in the second half as they’d been in the first. Depay got them going with a beautiful finish after a sweeping move. It began deep in their own half and cut the US to ribbons as they bisected midfield and sent it out wide for Denzel Dumfries to pull the wool over the entire American defence as he pulled it back for Depay to finish. Afterwards the manager spoke of the joy it brings, seeing his team produce such football. The second was similar in its final execution, Dumfries squaring to fellow wing back Daley Blind, still apparently 32 somehow, to double the advantage just before halftime. In between times all of the energy and pace the US had shown against England and Iran had been negated. Defensively naive for both goals, they were tactically callow too, Berhalter’s post-match bluster about there “not being a tonne separating the teams” summing up how wrong he got this day.

“The US didn’t adjust, didn’t adapt,” said Van Gaal. “That probably allowed us to win.”

Most of all, he allowed them to win though. His persistence with the wing back system, in spite of criticism at home, paid off so handsomely. When Haji Wright pulled a freak one back on 76 minutes, the Dutch went up the other end and Blind sent a booming ball to the back post where Dumfries rushed in and crashed home a volley. Both wing backs had set each other up for goals.

Van Gaal was asked how the system had worked so well. “I think Denzel should answer this,” he replied. “Otherwise you will say that I’m an arrogant man.” The old lion was pawing and toying with the press pack in much the same way he toyed with Berhalter.

When asked how pleased he was with Dumfries, he replied, “Yesterday or the day before I gave him a big fat kiss. I’m going to give him another big fat kiss” and leaned over to plant one on the defender’s head.

Before any of the serene progress, there was a scare. A superb save just two minutes in from the giant Andries Noppert in the Dutch goal. Christian Pulisic could have given his side a stunning start and things could have been different. But Noppert stuck out a big left leg to save. The 28-year-old was making his fourth Dutch appearance. All have come here in Qatar. He’s said no other manager in the world would have dared to do such a thing. He’s right.

Van Gaal handed another debut as the Dutch saw it out, PSV’s teenage tyro Xavi Simons’ first international appearance coming in the knockout stages of the World Cup. Stadium cameras captured him pulling Simons close as he gave him final instructions. The 19-year-old is named after the Spanish icon, who fully two decades ago was being coached by Van Gaal.

The circle just keeps on turning. For which the Dutch are eternally thankful. In the context of the last week, Europe should be, too. Life in the old lion yet.