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Marcotti: A tournament to remember

World Cup Jul 14, 2014
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 Posted by Doug McIntyre
Jul 7, 2014

Superstars collide in Messi vs. Robben

Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano looks ahead to the World Cup semifinal against the Netherlands, and team doctor Daniel Martinez gives an update on the fitness of Angel Di Maria.

SAO PAULO -- The eyes of 200 million Brazilians will be turned to the short-handed hosts' do-or-die match against Germany on Tuesday in Belo Horizonte.

But it's this World Cup's other marquee semifinal -- between Argentina and the Netherlands -- that will showcase the top two remaining players in the tournament in Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben.

That might not have been the case even if Selecao icon Neymar hadn't been forced to withdraw from the competition with a broken vertebra. His injury, which has sent the already fatalistic outlook of the locals toward even greater depths, came in Friday's win against a Colombia squad led by James Rodriguez, whose six goals lead the competition.

Now, it's all about the two leading men in Wednesday's match when it comes to individual supremacy. That opportunity will be in front of them when they face off at Arena Corinthians.

The Dutch and Albiceleste are mediocre teams led by exceptional singular talents. Usually, those squads get found out early. Not here, though.

Part of the reason Brazil 2014 has been the most entertaining Cup in recent memory is that no team has truly distinguished itself. That means one brilliant individual performance could make the difference. It means there's a good chance that whoever performs better, Robben or Messi, could determine which side advances to Sunday's grand finale in Rio.

Most of the attention will be on Messi, of course.

The two biggest stars remaining in the World Cup -- Argentina's Lionel Messi and the Netherlands' Arjen Robben -- face off Wednesday.

What's at stake for the tiny genius isn't lost on anyone. A World Cup win -- on Brazilian soil, no less -- would be the Albiceleste's first in 28 years, when Argentine deity Diego Maradona carried another decidedly average squad, quite literally single-handedly, to the title. Messi and Maradona are compared everywhere but in their shared homeland, which Messi left as a child and for which he has never been able to duplicate his exploits for club side Barcelona.

Victory here may be the best chance he'll ever have of changing that, and it would also cement his legacy as one of the sport's true greats.

But first, he'll have to get through the Oranje. And in what's guaranteed to be a tight game -- both teams have prioritized defense in the knockout rounds -- it could come down to one special moment. Odds are against this match being a classic, unlike their epic quarterfinal meeting in 1998.

"Argentina was just stopping and slamming on the brakes," was Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal's assessment of the Albiceleste's 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Belgium.

Meantime, the Dutch have found it difficult to score, managing just one goal from the run of play in two elimination games. Robben, though, was their best player in both.

The Bayern Munich star's embellishment -- and the furore surrounding it -- has overshadowed that somewhat. Costa Rica's only answer for him on Saturday was to hack him down every time he got loose on the right wing. He tried to sell those fouls, sure, but fouls they were.

With the ball at his feet, Robben has been the most dangerous player in the tournament so far, and he's finished three chances himself -- just one fewer than Messi. His leadership has also been crucial for the Dutch.

"If players say something, that hits home much more than if I do," Van Gaal said when asked about Robben's spirited address to his teammates before extra time commenced against the Ticos.

Van Gaal praised the camaraderie of this team, a lack of which has famously torpedoed previous Dutch squads. There is a sense that this group is mentally tougher than its predecessors; Saturday's match marked the first time they'd won an extra-time match on the global stage in five tries.

That bodes well for them on Wednesday. So does the improving form of playmaker Wesley Sneijder and the expected absence of injured Argentine midfielder Angel Di Maria.

Still, not much separates these squads, and Argentina remains the slight odds (3/2) favorite.

In the end, expect Robben or Messi to decide the outcome.

Doug McIntyre

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has watched or attended almost every U.S. men's national team game since Paul Caligiuri's "shot heard 'round the world" and has covered the Yanks for The Mag since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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