ARGENTINA made it through to their first World Cup final since 1990 after Maxi Rodriguez’s winning penalty evaded Jasper Cillessen’s despairing clutches. Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder had already missed for the Dutch while Argentina converted all four of their kicks following an uninspired goalless draw.
With the Netherlands having already used all their substitutes there was no opportunity for Tim Krul to stage another game-winning cameo at the shoot-out. Cillessen perhaps underlined why Louis van Gaal put his trust in Krul against Costa Rica. He has yet to save a penalty in his professional career.
Even though it was a World Cup semi-final the game struggled to escape the shadow of the previous evening, such was the enormity of the shock that had occurred. The match was preceded by a minute’s tribute to Alfredo di Stefano as the atmosphere of this World Cup continued to grow more solemn.
There were certainly far fewer Brazil tops in the crowd than has been the case so far in the tournament. They were not even spotted in the Netherlands sections of the crowd, where it was expected some Brazilian fans might have advertised their presence as they sought to lend support to one of the teams who can avert the next potential crisis to befall the hosts: an Argentina World Cup triumph.
Brazil’s breakdown loomed large over the proceedings here in Sao Paulo and now they know worse could be just around the corner. Only Germany, who beat Brazil 7-0 on Tuesday, can prevent Argentina parading the World Cup at the Maracana stadium on Sunday.
The players, too, played as if the fear of something similar happening to them was weighing on their mind. It was as if they were imagining becoming trapped in the same nightmarish movie where they succumbed to all-out collapse with the eyes of the world upon them.
Both teams were intent on keeping the play as tight as possible. This was far from a classic and creates history for less notable reasons compared to the previous evening; it is the first time a World Cup semi-final has ended goalless.
There was little of the majesty promised by the meeting of two teams who together occupy a special place in football history following their ‘ticker-tape’ final of 1978. On the field were scattered only the prostrate bodies of stricken players in what proved a bruising clash for both sides.
Lionel Messi failed to escape the attentions of Nigel De Jong for long enough to make a serious impact. Surprisingly, it was not this personal battle that saw someone come to personal harm. De Jong’s marking duties were carried out in accomplished and largely legal fashion before he departed the scene on the hour mark.
Javier Macherano came to grief after a sickening clash of heads with Georginio Wijnaldum in the middle of the park. Play was held-up as he received treatment and though he eventually carried on, he looked to have turned green during the time spent lying dazed on the turf. He emerged for the second-half, surprisingly, and was alert enough to make a game-saving challenge on Arjen Robben in the dying moments of normal time, on the way to becoming man of the match.
Pablo Zabaleta was also knocked to the ground after a shuddering collision with Dirk Kuyt in extra-time and continued with a ball of cotton-wool clenched beneath his teeth to mop up the blood pouring from his mouth.
Van Gaal made one switch at the interval, taking off Martins Indi, who had been booked, and replacing him with Daryl Janmaat. Wesley Sneijder emerged from the tunnel after half-time as well despite having taken a hefty kick from Argentina defender Martin Demichelis.
On the eve of the match, Van Gaal chided a reporter after a question on whether there was a special plan hatched by the Dutch to deal with Messi. They do not aim to cope with individual players, only teams, he answered. But there was no disguising what he did have planned for Messi - an old-style man to-man marking job. And he had just the man to do it: De Jong.
The other potential stars were having even less success than Messi. Angel Di Maria did not even make the starting XI due to a thigh injury while Robin van Persie, who did shake off a stomach bug to take his place at the start, again struggled to make an impact, and was replaced by Klaas Jan Hantelaar shortly after the start of extra-time – significantly, it was the third, and therefore last, substitution of the night for the Netherlands.
Even when Messi did escape the clutches of De Jong, there was invariably a supporting Dutch defender to mop up the danger. Ron Vlaar made one of the challenges of the tournament so far to flick the ball away from Messi’s dancing feet as he prepared to advance into the box in the second-half. It was rivalled for timing by Mascherano’s expertly executed block on Robben after 89 minutes.
Jordy Clasie replaced De Jong after 61 minutes, the effort expended in tracking Messi too much for someone whose tournament was supposed to have already ended due to a groin injury. Unshackled from such a dogged companion, there was now a suspicion that Messi might impose himself on the proceedings. However, his threat continued to be contained by the pocket-sized Clasie, who assumed De Jong’s role with minimal fuss and equal effectiveness .
Netherlands: Cillessen, De Vrij, Vlaar, Martins Indi (Janmaat,45), Kuyt, De Jong (Clasie, 62), Sneijder, Wijnaldum, Blind, Robben, van Persie (Huntelaar, 96). Subs: Vorm, de Guzman, Verhaegh, Veltman, Kongolo, Lens, Depay, Krul.
Argentina: Romero, Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo, Biglia, Mascherano, Lavezzi (Rodríguez, 101), Messi, Perez (Palacio, 81), Higuain (Agüero, 82). Subs: Orion, Campagnaro, Gago, Augusto Fernandez, Federico Fernandez, Alvarez, Basanta, Andujar.