The Netherlands are one win away from a second straight World Cup final while opponents Argentina head into tomorrow’s last-four clash looking to end their 24-year wait for a place in the biggest game of all.
Two teams with a rich tradition and an abundance of motivation should produce a close game, characterised by tight marking, disciplined defence and fast-moving threats on the break as they bid to reach the final on 13 July in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana.
But for all the expectation, all the history and all the focus on the tactical approaches of Alejandro Sabella and Louis van Gaal, the clash at the Corinthians arena is likely to come down to how two individuals seize the moment.
With both teams set to pack the midfield, regardless of what formal formation they field, Argentine Lionel Messi and Dutchman Arjen Robben will be charged with producing thrilling moments of skill that could decide who heads to Rio for the final.
The narrative around 27-year-old Messi’s stature in the game has long suggested that the four-time World Player of the Year needs to take his country to a World Cup triumph to be able to enter the list of the game’s true greats.
Whether that assessment is fair or not, Messi is certainly doing his best to prove he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as compatriot Diego Maradona and Brazil’s legendary Pele.
The forward has four goals, all of which came in the in the group stage, but his contribution has gone well beyond finding the back of the net.
Messi has always had the ability, for Barcelona and Argentina, to drop away from the opposing back line and run at defences from deep, but in the quarter-final win over Belgium, he played almost as a classic play-making No 10.
In this withdrawn role, Messi successfully controlled the tempo of the game, slowing it down when needed and probing for spaces for striker Gonzalo Higuain to exploit.
So often the virtuoso who provides the dramatic crescendo to an attack, Messi has evolved in this tournament into the conductor of the Argentinian orchestra.
The absence of Angel Di Maria on the right through injury is a blow for Argentina because the Real Madrid winger has provided the other main attacking threat for Sabella’s team.
It will be interesting to see whether the Argentine coach goes with the defence-minded Enzo Perez, who replaced Di Maria against the Belgians, or decides to deploy a more attacking option.
His Dutch counterpart Van Gaal has been willing to adjust his line-up and formation for each game, but the one constant is the reliance on Robben to terrorise defences with his high-speed dribbling.
While much attention has focused on the tricky winger’s tendency to go down easily in seeking penalties, that has distracted somewhat from the way his pace, directness and shooting have been the main focus of the Dutch attacks.
Van Gaal’s side have cut it fine on the route to the semi-finals though – they needed penalties to get past Costa Rica in the quarter-finals having only beaten Mexico by a controversial last-minute penalty in the previous round.
They will need striker Robin van Persie to recapture his form from the group stage to give the Argentina defence something else to ponder apart from Robben’s direct threat.
“We know that we will play against one of the best teams when it comes to counterattacks because of the speed of their men up front,” Argentinamidfielder Javier Mascherano said. “So we have to take precautions to not give them the possibility to counter attack, to always be well positioned, to not lose balls unnecessarily in areas where there’s a lot of risk.”
Addressing the obvious threat of Messi, Netherlands goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen said: “He’s a good player, but we look at the whole team, not one player,” “We’re going to watch how Argentina plays. We’re going to make our plan to beat Argentina.”
Whether that plan again could involve Cillessen being substituted a minute before a penalty shootout and replaced with the more physically imposing Tim Krul – as happened against Costa Rica – remains to be seen.
The move by tactical mastermind Louis van Gaal was the World Cup’s most surprising substitution and one of its most effective as Krul stopped two penalties. “We are ready for everything,” Krul said. “Hopefully, we don’t need it against Argentina and we can do the job in 90 minutes.”
The two sides have a long World Cup history, including one of the Netherlands’ most heart-breaking losses in the 1978 final when Rob Rensenbrink’s shot hit the post shortly before full time with the scores level at 1-1. Argentina went on to win 3-1 in extra time.
In 1998, the Dutch led by Guus Hiddink, got a measure of revenge when Dennis Bergkamp’s memorable goal knocked Argentina out in the quarter-finals in France.
Cillessen said beating Argentina in Sao Paulo would only be a step on the way to making amends for the 1978 final – one of three the Netherlands has lost, earning the Dutch the title of the best team never to win the World Cup.
“It would be revenge if we win the World Cup,” Cillessen said. “But we have to wait for that. It’s not a final. It’s a semi.”