Argentina will come up against the Netherlands on Wednesday in a clash-of-the-titans encounter for a place in the World Cup Final, where they will meet Germany. Both sides have been dragged through to the semi-finals by their star men Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben and both have fluctuated between uninspiring and totally unstoppable. With the Dutch seeking to make up for their loss at the final hurdle in 2010 and destiny carrying Messi & co. on to Rio, this could be a truly memorable match near the end of a wonderful tournament.
Angel di Maria, who scored the winner for Argentina in arguably one of his worst-ever performances against Switzerland, will miss the game with a thigh injury but could return for either the final or the third-place play-off. The return of Sergio Aguero will be a welcome boost with Marcos Rojo also returning following a one-match ban.
Ron Vlaar, Leroy Fer and Nigel De Jong are doubts for Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands, though all three have raised hopes of playing by taking part in training this week.
A first goal of the tournament for Gonzalo Higuain saw Argentina past dark horses Belgium in the previous knockout round, and although it was only a 1-0 scoreline, it showed much about what is good about this Argentine side. While many before the tournament were expecting the Argentines to be one of the top scoring sides, they have shown on numerous occasions their ability to grind out a win when needed, and in very different ways.
Last-gasp goals against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Switzerland showcased a superb determination to win under difficult conditions – not to mention casting away any lingering doubts about Messi’s ability to shine at international level – and their Belgian victory showed that they are fully capable of grabbing an early goal and holding onto it. Against a weary Dutch side worn out by 120 minutes plus penalties against plucky underdogs Costa Rica, that could be an important skill.
The Netherlands came through a difficult test from the Costa Ricans thanks to Van Gaal’s late introduction of lanky, in-your-face goalkeeper Tim Krul, and his managerial nous could be a major weapon for the Dutch.
Despite his wonderful diving header against Spain in their opening group game, Robin van Persie has been poor and may be lucky to keep Klaas-Jan Huntelaar out of the starting lineup. Memphis Depay has impressed in pieces, but there is no doubt that Bayern Munich’s Robben has been the star of the show.
Rojo and the excellent Ezequiel Garay will do well to contain his threat, but the Oranje have been fairly porous at the back, conceding four goals from their five games and being fairly lucky to survive a late barrage in the quarter-finals. History suggests that a team coming off the back of a penalty shoot-out win is unlikely to make it through the next side, but in a tournament of tactical surprises – Dirk Kuyt at wing-back the most revelatory – the Dutch could yet have something up their sleeves.
What they may not be able to overcome, however, is fate. With a string of wonderful goals and assists throughout the tournament, there seems a hint of the inevitable about the possibility of Messi leading his nation to victory in the home of their most hated rivals, and cementing his place in the all-time pantheon of footballing greats; maybe even at the top of it.
Having outshone Cristiano Ronaldo and arguably the injured Neymar, he should have one of his favorite strike partners returning in Sergio Aguero, the two sharing a partnership which borders on the telepathic. Holland – don’t say you haven’t been warned.