Romero's redemption saves Argentina
SAO PAULO -- Two-hundred and twenty-seven minutes of league football. Plus half a dozen cup games. That's how much Sergio Romero played last season for Monaco.
And now he's the hero of a semifinal penalty shootout that leaves Argentina 90 minutes and 11 Germans (possibly up to 14) away from winning their third World Cup.
At the Maracana.
In Zico's house.
The ways of football are infinite, much like those of the man upstairs who might be taking an interest in this tournament, given that Sunday's final will also represent a "Papal Derby" between the retired German Pontifex and the serving Argentinian one.
You can't help but talk about faith here because it's a common theme, starting with the faith Alejandro Sabella showed in persevering with Romero, ignoring the conventional wisdom whereby a keeper needs regular games to be at his best.
There's the faith that was absent from Claudio Ranieri, the Monaco coach, who felt Croatia's Danijel Subasic (who was also at this World Cup, though ironically as a substitute) was a better option than Romero between the sticks.
But there's also the faith of another coach, the man whose team was eliminated by Romero on Wednesday in one of those curious twists the football carousel so often throws up at us. In 2007, Louis van Gaal, then-manager and technical director of AZ Alkmaar, signed the 20-year-old Romero from Racing Club and brought him to European football.
After half a season, he gave Romero the starting job, and a year later Van Gaal was rewarded with the Dutch title, redemption in the eyes of his doubters and a job with Bayern Munich. Romero remained another two years with Alkmaar, establishing himself as one of the best young keepers in Europe.
It's not a coincidence that, after saluting the raucous and wet Argentina fans who roared on La Albiceleste through 120 minutes and the shootout, Romero sought out the two coaches who had believed in him. (Ranieri wasn't around. If he were, Romero would have been entitled to have a few words with him, too.)
After sharing a moment with Sabella, he found Van Gaal.
"He was very important to me," Romero said. "I arrived in Holland from Argentina. A different country, a different language, different customs; I didn't speak a word. And he took care of me. I am so grateful to him.
"From the very first day, he told me that a team plays with 11 players, not 10 players plus a goalkeeper. And that's important."
You can imagine just how important it was for a guy whose confidence would otherwise have been shot. Not just by his Monaco nightmare, but by sharing the Argentine stage with guys such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. Particularly before the World Cup, Argentina looked like a top-heavy side intent on outscoring the opposition, because you couldn't be sure they could keep too many out.
On Wednesday, though, both Sabella and Van Gaal seemed intent on not conceding. It was understandable to begin with, given the magnitude of the game, and it became crystal clear after the first semifinal, when the world was reminded how a defensive lapse can lead to an avalanche of goals and the darkest day in a nation's footballing history.
You almost got the impression that -- in keeping with the faith theme -- Sabella and Van Gaal had more confidence in themselves and their ability to out-tactic the opposition than they did in their own players: I trust you; I trust myself more.
Sabella's 4-3-3 formation was Messi-focused but designed to, above all, control space. "He who covers the space better wins -- it's like that most of the time," Sabella explained afterward. On a night when Messi sparkled only occasionally, it was wise to have a Plan B.
Van Gaal responded with a setup seemingly intended to deny space. The Dutch back five was designed to cage Messi, with Georginio Wijnaldum and the medical miracle Nigel de Jong -- his four-week groin strain prognosis turned into a two-week absence -- deputized to pick up runners.
Wesley Sneijder might have been the virtuoso soloist for the Netherlands in 2010, but in Van Gaal's world he turned himself into the epitome of humility and work rate. On the ball, he had the thankless job of launching the two Dutch strikers, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, often by himself. Off the ball, he was chasing Lucas Biglia, the main passing threat in Sabella's midfield.
The result was a stalemate. The Oranje seawall held, also because the Albiceleste ocean did not launch waves of attacks, but rather picked its spots, mostly down Holland's left, where Daley Blind was struggling and Ezequiel Lavezzi was rampaging.
Blind is as clever a footballer as you'll meet, and technically gifted to boot. What he isn't, though, is a "motor guy" -- neither in terms of stamina nor in terms of speed. Yet come the final third, something was usually lacking, whether because Messi flashed only intermittently or because Ron Vlaar was snuffing out Higuain's runs.
Van Gaal addressed the Blind issue at the half with a typical game of musical chairs, the kind only managers with total faith in their team's tactical understanding would dare to do. Dirk Kuyt moved from right-back to left-back (reaffirming his jack-of-all-trades credentials); Daryl Janmaat came on to patrol the right flank; Blind became the left-sided centre-back; and Bruno Martins Indi -- booked for holding back Messi -- came off. This way, there was a guardian angel (the cherubic Kuyt) protecting Blind who could make his long-range passing count, as it had in the opener with Spain.
Alas, there weren't too many places to find with long-range vision. Javier Mascherano regularly dropped into the Argentina back three, where he coordinated the defensive mechanisms that swallowed up Van Persie whole. As for Robben, he was roaming the pitch so unsuccessfully that he managed only six touches in the first half.
"We controlled his space well for the first hour and more," Sabella said afterward with a fair degree of understatement.
Argentina advance to the World Cup final
- Marcotti: Romero the keeper of the faith
- Jones: Van Gaal's magic touch deserts him
- Macintosh: Mascherano the inspiration
- Brewin: Romero is the shootout hero
- Delaney: Messi contained but Albiceleste prevail
- McIntyre: Argentina vs. Netherlands grades
- Tactics Board: Two-way containment
- Watch the entire penalty shootout (U.S. only)
At times, you felt Argentina were giving Robben too much respect. When they pushed up for set pieces, they kept three men around the Bayern roadrunner, just in case there was a long clearance, plus another man 20 yards further back. But maybe that's what it took.
Sabella made his move with eight minutes to go of the 90. On came the fresh-legged Rodrigo Palacio and the convalescent Sergio Aguero, who returned after missing two games, for midfielder Enzo Perez and the embattled Higuain.
It was evidently time to gamble but, against the run of play, the Dutch nearly nicked it when the resurgent Robben squirted his way through the blue-and-white shirts only for a superb last-ditch Mascherano tackle on the edge of the 6-yard box to deny him.
Vision began to blur and limbs became cement in extra time. Van Gaal sent on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for Van Persie. It was his third substitution (as well as Martins Indi, De Jong had also exited earlier), which meant if the game went to a shootout, he wouldn't be repeating his Tim Krul, specialist, penalty-saver, novelty act. Novelty act? Yes, that's right. As Van Gaal said afterward, shootouts are "always a story of luck."
You waited for a mistake or a moment of genius to provide an opportunity. Both came, and both went Argentina's way. Palacio was able to steal through the Dutch lines only to produce an error of his own, weakly heading the ball to Jasper Cillessen. Then Messi showed up. He beat Vlaar, he beat Kuyt, he beat Vlaar again and then he delivered a cross on a plate for substitute Maxi Rodriguez, whose finish bizarrely had all the enthusiasm of a teenager asked to clean up his room.
And so it went to spot kicks on what had become a chilly Sao Paulo night. Cillessen tried to emulate Krul's antics, but to no avail. We can speculate endlessly over whether the substitution against Costa Rica meant he had lost whatever faith he had in his own ability to save penalties.
Romero was focused as he studiously went through his pre-penalty routine: touch the right post, stomp across the goal line and touch the left post, stomp back the other way to the right upright and then stomp three times to the middle of the goal.
Four times he did it, after two of which he saved from Vlaar and Sneijder to book a ticket back to the Maracana for a date with the Germans on Sunday. And maybe with Argentina's first World Cup since 1986.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.