If the Germany vs. Brazil World Cup seminfinal game was no contest, with the Germans crushing the hosts 7-1, then the Netherlands-Argentina semifinal clash was the opposite: a contest of wills. A chess match and a cage fight masquerading as a football game. The Argentines were determined to put the brakes on the freewheeling Dutch footballing machine led by Arjen Robben. The Dutch were determined to make someone other than Lionel Messi beat them. He didn’t. At least not during the run of play.
Messi was one of four perfect penalty takers as Argentina bested the Netherlands 4-2 on PKs after 120 minutes of slug-it-out soccer yielded no goals, few shots and strangulation defense. “We didn’t create very much. In all the other matches we created more opportunities than we did today. That says something about Argentina, ” Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal said after the match. And the fact that Messi was bottled up for most of the game also spoke to the tactical scheme that Van Gaal had set up to thwart Argentina’s ace.
Argentina’s keeper Sergio Romero, who was once coached by Van Gaal, looked a bit shaky during the game, on several occasions punching the ball clear when he could have easily caught it. But in the penalty shootout, he got down to block Ron Vlaar’s first kick going to his left; then after Messi and Robben coolly made their kicks, he dove high to his right to deny Wesley Sneijder.
The match was now clearly in Argentina’s hands. Ezequiel Garay then smashed one down the center preserve the Argentina lead. After Dirk Kuyt kept Dutch hopes alive by making the fourth kick, Maxi Rodriguez ended them—keeper Jasper Cillessen got a glove on the ball but couldn’t keep it out. Van Gaal didn’t get a chance to use his PK blocking specialist Tim Krul, because he’d used up his last sub in replacing the weakening Robin Van Persie. The striker had been fighting off flu systems, and he was never a match for Argentina’s defenders.
Argentina now has the opportunity to make Brazil’s World Cup a complete disaster by winning the final against Germany.
For the first half hour of the match, it became quickly apparent that both teams’ strategies were working. Robben barely got an introduction to the ball and when he did Javier Mascherano, Argentina’s designated butcher, was there to make sure he didn’t get any momentum going. And Messi had a two-man Orange escort anytime the ball was on his foot. Bruno Martins Indi spent most of the first half trying to bite Messi’s leg, which finally earned him a yellow card and then a seat on the bench. He was replaced at the half because Van Gaal knew that Messi would toy with him in the second 45.
The only hint of an Argentine advantage was the deep runs being made by Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain. But at the end those runs stood Vlaar, Holland’s giant defender, who had a magnificent game until his penalty kick troubles.
The second half and extra time had very little to offer in terms of offense. Robben finally broke through the Argentine line in the 91st minute but Mascherano was there once again to save his team. In the 106th minute, he was leveled by a shoulder from Kuyt, but played the rest of the game clutching cotton wadding between his teeth to contain bleeding from a cut inside his mouth. It was an enormous performance. Meanwhile, in the 117th minute, Messi finally outran Vlaar in the corner, but his cross back across goal to Rodriguez was hacked into the ground. That miss would allow “Maxi” to become the hero a few minutes later in the PKs.