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Jul 9, 2014

Messi contained, but Argentina prevail

ESPN's Encore panel discuss how Netherlands kept Lionel Messi at bay during their semifinal matchup.

The story might have been somewhat complicated, but the emotion was all too clear.

After Maxi Rodriguez powered the last penalty past Jasper Cillessen to send Argentina into a World Cup final for the first time in 24 years, there was Lionel Messi in the centre of it all.

He looked close to tears. It was certainly a release, particularly after a game in which he encountered such restraint. Messi let out a primal scream rather similar to the one following his first meaningful act of this World Cup, the goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This was undeniably Messi's least productive performance of the tournament, but he still played his part in setting what might be the perfect crescendo. Argentina will now take on Germany, the team who suffered Diego Maradona's most decisive act.

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Messi's display here did not come close to his great predecessor's in the 1986 semifinal against Belgium, but he can still surpass that by deciding and defining the final. The reality is that Argentina might need him more than ever on Sunday, especially against such a free-scoring German team.

On Wednesday, Alejandro Sabella's side were anything but free-flowing, and they have yet to offer that truly convincing display. This turgid semifinal, however, was about a little more than just their struggles to truly come together in terms of play. The reality is it still came down to Messi. He might not have influenced the game the way he or Argentina wanted, but he still conditioned everything about it.

The fact that it was so tense and tough to watch was specifically down to the dilemma Messi presents. Because Dutch head coach Louis van Gaal absolutely knew the danger of leaving Messi space, he effectively sacrificed his attack in order to stifle him. That is the only way to explain why Nigel de Jong rarely strayed more than 3 yards from the playmaker and why, when he did, Messi immediately had two other players around.

On Sunday against Germany, Lionel Messi will try to lead Argentina to their first World Cup title since 1986.
On Sunday against Germany, Lionel Messi will try to lead Argentina to their first World Cup title since 1986.

It is also why the Dutch didn't offer an attack of note until close to the 90th minute, when they began to feel confident enough to get forward after Argentina began to tire and the match entered that curiously ragged period extra time always produces. Van Gaal knew that if you don't try to suffocate Messi, he is capable of tearing you apart. The unfortunate consequence, of course, is that the need to pin players back also saps your own forward line, which means both attacks are somewhat nullified.

To a certain extent, it is like a less extreme version of what so many teams tried to do with Spain between 2009 and 2013. That is perhaps no surprise. One was one of the greatest ever teams; the other is one of the greatest ever players. As such, it was even less of a surprise that this was a game very similar in pattern to the 2010 final, when a dogged Dutch approach ensured Spain couldn't offer the statement that winning the history trophy would have been.

This was hardly a statement from Messi.

Instead, it was much more stuttering. Bruno Martins Indi ensured that was emphatically the case in the first half, when one elbow left the No. 10 rubbing his ribs. The defender was not so fortunate the next time, as one glorious Messi sidestep brought a booking.

It was still one of a series of good moments in this game. There were also two supreme runs on the right, one excellent jink inside and two excellent passes in extra time. On the whole, though, Van Gaal and the Dutch deserve huge credit for reducing Messi's rampant ability to nothing of much effect. It said an awful lot that, though de Jong eventually had to go off, the Netherlands seamlessly kept the defensive game plan going without any kind of drop-off.

At the very least, the best player in the world brought out the best performances in the likes of Ron Vlaar. Two times the Aston Villa defender went to ground, in particular, stood out. The first was on the edge of the box just after the second half started, as Messi seemed primed to set himself up. Reflecting the kind of inches such things come down to, Vlaar barely got his toe on the ball to magnificently force it away.

For the next moment, Vlaar got much more on the ball. With Messi about to slip away on the halfway line, the centre-half slid in to force Argentina right back. As such, there were almost a certain cruelty and irony in the fact that it was Vlaar who missed the first -- and perhaps most decisive -- penalty.

That was what the Netherlands played for, however, and the margins they brought it down to. It was Messi, of course, who stepped up for the next one. As he did so, there was a slight sense of trepidation among the Argentine crowd that -- after such an underwhelming game -- he might miss in the manner of the 2012 Champions League semifinal against Chelsea.

He did not. The ball was dispatched. Argentina are on their way to the World Cup final.

Messi might yet find a way to make history.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.