It wasn't easy to fight one's way to the bar for a pint on Wednesday night in Buenos Aires. Wednesday would have been a day off work for everyone anyway -- July 9 is Independence Day in Argentina -- but a first World Cup semifinal in 24 years ensured the city began to close for business at around 3 p.m., and by kickoff at 4 p.m., the capital was at a standstill.
No one was on the streets. In my living room, the only noise apart from the television came from my neighbour who -- having cable instead of the satellite TV I have -- was seeing everything around a second before I was. As a result, I was almost glad that no goals came during the tactically fraught, tightly contested 120 minutes of normal action. Argentina probably shaded the match, it's true, but having an advertisement of a goal before seeing it scored would have spoiled the surprise.
Of course, when the penalty shootout came this made things enormously frustrating. All the same, after following this Argentina side for so long, it was impossible not to share in the joy when the shootout was won. Watching Argentina during this World Cup has been a frustrating experience to those of us who saw them scoring freely and wowing the crowd during the qualifiers, but they've shown real character to fight through to the final.
The attack has been hamstrung by fitness issues since the start of the tournament -- or, if we're honest, before. Both Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero were unable to train fully or feature heavily (Aguero came on as a sub, Higuain didn't play at all) in the pre-tournament friendlies. As a result of that, and of opposition game plans which sensibly saw Argentina's attack afforded far less space than they'd been given in qualifying, Alejandro Sabella's side have looked stodgy.
Built around Lionel Messi -- for understandable reasons -- they have struggled to find alternative attacking outlets during this tournament, but although he's not managed to succeed quite as visibly as Diego Maradona in 1986 in the latter stages, Messi has been as important to his side's progress -- even on Wednesday.
It was Messi, after all, who dragged his teammates kicking and screaming through the group stage. Messi who broke the lock the Swiss had put on him with seconds to go of extra time in the round of 16 to set up Angel Di Maria; Messi who dropped deep and ran long portions of the game in the quarterfinal against Belgium.
And all of that hugely affected the semifinal on Wednesday. Both Netherlands and Argentina were set up with an eye on the opposition's danger man. Argentina wanted to stop Arjen Robben, the Dutch wanted to prevent Messi creating too much. But although no clear chances were created on either side, Argentina seemed to do the better job of finding alternate outlets for their play.
As such, and not for the first time, Messi's true value to Argentina was underlined; simply by being on the pitch, he was occupying two or three opposing players constantly, and thus making the job of each and every one of his teammates easier. This time, as perhaps never before, his teammates stepped up magnificently.
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)
Not least Javier Mascherano. FIFA must get better regulations in place for concussions -- if that means an exceptional rule allowing rolling substitutes in extreme situations, for instance, then so be it -- but the Barcelona man was exemplary, as he has been for the whole of this World Cup. His last-ditch tackle on Robben after the Argentine defence was finally breached towards the end of normal time might become one of the iconic images of this tournament if the Albiceleste go all the way.
The biggest portion of the redemption, though, was reserved for Sergio Romero. The Monaco goalkeeper -- sorry, allow me to correct myself, the Monaco reserve goalkeeper -- has had to put up for months with questions about why Willy Caballero isn't in the squad, and whether he's really worth Sabella's faith. On Wednesday, in the penalty shootout, he answered those critics in spectacular fashion.
The nature of Germany's victory over Brazil on Tuesday meant Argentines celebrated long and loud that evening (knowing the following day was a public holiday only made things better). To now back that up with progress to the final themselves only makes things better. On Sunday, the nerves begin all over again. But in the bars of Buenos Aires on Wednesday night, it was almost as if the trophy had already been won.
I suspect a few sickies might be pulled on Thursday morning, and I doubt many of the bosses are going to care. Argentina are back in the World Cup final, after 24 years of waiting.