Three Points: Argentina overcome Netherlands
SAO PAULO -- Three points on Argentina's 4-2 penalty shootout win over Netherlands that booked their place in Sunday's World Cup final with Germany.
1. A different kind of tension
After the deluge, the stalemate. Belo Horizonte's night of high farce was succeeded by a semifinal that at times lacked tension, a very strange state of affairs for a match that decided who will face Germany in the 2014 World Cup final. Penalties were a crashing inevitability from very early on indeed. Lightning could not strike twice for the Dutch; the need to make three outfield substitutions robbed them of the ability to bring on Tim Krul from the goalkeeping bullpen.
Instead, Jasper Cillessen, who has never saved a penalty in his professional career, was beaten by each Argentina penalty, as Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder both failed. Cillessen got a hand to Maxi Rodriguez's, for Argentina's fourth, but the ball still beat the goal line. Argentina were back in the final for the first time in 24 years; back in 1990, they required penalties -- versus Italy -- to get there. This time Sergio Romero, a former Louis van Gaal player at AZ Alkmaar, was the goalkeeping hero.
The emotional trauma that Brazil had suffered at German hands after leaving themselves so open perhaps served to make this a risk-free affair, a cold fish of a match. Neither Alejandro Sabella nor Van Gaal were betting the farm, and even the shootout lacked true drama.
Half-chances had come and gone, mostly for Argentina, with the Dutch always holding their opponents at arm's length, and the same was true of the Argentines' deep-set defending. The Dutch's early-tournament promise had slowed, while Argentina were yet to win a match by more than a single-goal advantage. Their best chances both came in the 116th minute, when Rodrigo Palacio could only nod at Cillessen, and Maxi's shot did the same.
The greying weather reflected a national mood. Brazil's dream is dead, and the fear was that it could be replaced by the nightmare of Argentina winning the World Cup instead. At the tournament's opening match, the Arena Corinthians' open-stadium structure had allowed a view of a night sky filled with fireworks whenever Brazil scored against Croatia. Now, pyrotechnics were likely only in the event of Dutch victory. Yellow shirts that previously have filled stadia were now in the minority.
For a second night, Brazil did not get its wish. Now Argentina can win on their territory. A nightmare draws near.
2. Messi fails to inspire
A few moments' appreciation were held before kickoff for Alfredo Di Stefano, probably the best player never to play at a World Cup. Messi had already surpassed his compatriot by reaching any stage of the tournament, but he struggled in his quest to take his country into their first final since 1990 and emulate Diego Maradona.
In the early stages, Messi was coming deep to collect the ball, in an attempt to draw out the Dutch defence and escape the attentions of Nigel de Jong.
As has been Messi's habit in Brazil, he was often to be found standing stock still, before waiting to make his sudden bursts. Yet even with De Jong gone, he looked peripheral as the game lurched on. One poor free kick had him cursing the heavens; even he was now lacking inspiration.
Messi badly needed somebody on his wavelength. Gonzalo Higuain's revival against Belgium looked temporary, while it can only be wondered how many more goals Argentina might have scored had Sergio Aguero not succumbed to his continual muscular problems. Aguero's introduction still did not produce enough movement. The drive of Angel Di Maria was badly missed. There was no alternative ball carrier, which only increased the burden on the captain and his frustrations with it. The type of incisor run that eventually won the day against Switzerland did come not off; the final pass always headed to an orange shirt.
When full-time came, and the Argentine players were huddled, it was Messi and not Sabella who gave the team talk, revealing the pecking order for all to see. When penalties came, all Messi could do was score his and hand the plaudits to Romero.
3. Dutch doggerel
Van Gaal could not repeat the card trick against Costa Rica; penalties again became a source of Dutch pain. In normal time, his team could not create nearly enough.
Arjen Robben, licensed to travel wherever an opportunity presented itself, was the main prong, and by the end of the 90 minutes, the sole hope in attack. Robin van Persie was a far less mobile counterpoint. When the Dutch attacked, the diagonal ball was the usual tactic, in the hope that Robben's speed would take him onto a flick-on. That Robben touched the ball just six times in the first half reflected the effectiveness of the Dutch attacking effort. The real aim was to keep things tight. Ron Vlaar was the rock at the centre of the rearguard effort only to become an unfortunate victim of the shootout.
It took until the strike of time added on for Robben to escape, only for Javier Mascherano to rob him as the moment to shoot arrived. The Dutch thus ended normal time without a single shot on target. It had been the first time that Sneijder and Robben had linked.
Dirk Kuyt, in his wing-back role, was far more to the fore. He is three years older than van Persie yet possesses a far deeper well of energy. Van Gaal even changed his position at halftime, clearly feeling that he was a far better defensive option than Daley Blind. Odd to think Kuyt once scored a goal as a striker in 2007's Champions League final.
Van Gaal was employing similar tactics to those that had beaten Chile in the group stage, with the hope that his forwards could catch a break. Sneijder, the creative hub of 2010's finalists, played a sacrificial role in chasing down Argentina's anchor pairing of Mascherano and Lucas Biglia and would eventually pay the penalty himself.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.