Sao Paulo: The Netherlands are one win away from a second straight World Cup final while opponents Argentina head into Wednesday’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 threats on the break as they bid to reach the July 13 final at 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.
The two teams have met four times before in the World Cup, including in the 1978 final, which Argentina won after extra time on home soil. That was their only win over the Dutch at the finals having lost twice and drawn once in the other matches.
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.
One isn’t sure whether to divert the pressure, Van Gaal threw in a twist on Tuesday when he said that Robin van Persie is doubtful for the match with a stomach problem. “Van Persie has an intestinal problem and I didn’t want to take a risk,” said Van Gaal on the Manchester United striker, who trained apart from his team-mates on the day.
“On Wednesday, I’ll have to take all these decisions. He is a very important player for us. In principle, my captain always plays, but only if he is 100 per cent.”
On the other hand, the narrative around the 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 enter the list of the game’s true greats.
Whether that assessment is fair or not, Messi is certainly doing his best to prove that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as compatriot Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Pele.
In this withdrawn role, Messi successfully controlled the tempo of the game, slowing it down when needed and probing for spaces for striker Gonzalo Higuain to exploit.
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.