What to make of the second semifinal of this most insane World Cup? Two sides drenched in talent and history battle for a place in the final against Germany (who looked pretty good yesterday). On one side, the Netherlands, eternal bridesmaids of the tournament. On the other, Argentina, host Brazil’s rival and two-time cup winners. Only one marches on, so will the tear-smeared face paint be Dutch orange or Argentinian blue?
Argentina, for all its promise and talent, has not made easy work of a fairly simple assignment, squeaking past each of its opponents by a one-goal margin. And they haven’t exactly played powerhouses of the game, either: Angel di Maria nicked a goal 118 minutes in to push Argentina past Switzerland in the first knockout match; a 1-0 victory over Iran in the group stage was thanks to a bit of Lionel Messi magic in injury time.
About that Messi guy. A brilliant player. World-beater. He’s turning in performances for his country that are starting to resemble the effortless marauding he dishes out in a Barcelona shirt. He’s been linking up beautifully with di Maria, one of the planet’s best wingers. But therein lies a problem: di Maria is out after picking up a thigh injury in the quarterfinal against Belgium, and there’s no obvious replacement for him.
The good news for Argentina is that Sergio Agüero, the country’s other devastating forward, appears to be fit after missing the past two matches, though he’s yet to find the net in Brazil and could easily start on the bench. Gonzalo Higuaín, the other-other devastating forward, has found his shooting boots, having scored a beauty against Belgium.
But let’s be honest, Argentina’s hope = Messi. Last night we all saw what can happen when a team depends too much on one player. If the Netherlands can contain him, well…
And the man that just might be able to shackle Messi won’t be running around in a pair of brightly colored boots. Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal has been the standout non-player of the competition so far, conjuring some bizarre tactical brilliance by, among other things, pulling off star striker Robin van Persie in one match (the guy who replaced him won the match), and bringing on a fresh goalkeeper seconds before a penalty shootout in another (the guy who came on won the match). He also masterminded the tournament’s first shocker as the Netherlands blew past Spain 5-1 on the second day of festivities. If there’s anyone in Brazil who can gin up a way to neutralize Messi, it’s van Gaal.
But for all of van Gaal’s shrewdness, there’s more than a bit of rough in the Netherlands’s game: Arjen Robben can change a game seemingly at will, but he’s also got his Scuba certification nailed by now. Van Persie, whose amazing header against Spain you’ve surely seen meme’d to death by now, has been relatively silent in the knockout stages and missed an easy tap-in that would have sent Costa Rica packing last week. He also got hit with a stomach bug and missed training this week; he’s a question mark. There’ve been long periods of bluntness in the Netherlands’s play, too, though they still managed to leave Mexico and Costa Rica behind after less-than-inspiring outings.
Both sides are pedigreed and stocked with talent. Strong, fluid midfields, capable defenses and mesmerizing attack options. It really could go either way, but van Gaal tips this to the Netherlands. Every strategic decision he’s made so far has paid out, and his players would jump in front of a train if he said that’s what it would take to get the job done.
Scoreline: 2-1 to the Dutch. Argentina will take the lead. Who doesn’t like a comeback?