Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben come into the remaining World Cup semifinal as the undoubted stars of the show, but doubt remains about the status of the leading supporting cast for both Argentina and the Netherlands.
While midfielders Nigel de Jong and Leroy Fer as well as defender Ron Vlaar remain fitness concerns ahead of Wednesday’s clash in Sao Paulo, the Netherlands suffered a fresh blow when coach Louis van Gaal revealed that striker and captain Robin van Persie was battling a stomach complaint.
“He has some stomach problems, some intestinal problems, so it's best not to train him,” Van Gaal said of Van Persie, according to Reuters. “We have more than a day to go and Van Persie is a very important player for us.
“Van Persie is our captain so in that capacity alone he is very important,” he added. "He only has stomach problems and he has some plasters around his leg, he always does.”
As they seek to reach back-to-back World Cup finals, the Netherlands could really do with not just a fit Van Persie but a firing one. Having started the tournament with two memorable goals in a historic 5-1 rout of holders Spain, before getting another against Australia, the Manchester United star has gone badly off the boil. After suspension in the final group game, he failed to find the back of the net against either Mexico in the Round of 16 or Costa Rica in the quarterfinals to stretch his scoreless run in World Cup knockout matches to seven.
Van Persie was even taken off against Mexico, to be replaced by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, when the Netherlands were chasing a goal. If Van Persie is unable to take his place in the starting lineup on Wednesday, it is likely that Huntelaar, who scored his 35th goal for his country to take them through to the quarterfinals, will get his first start of the competition. Van Gaal’s other option is the more versatile Dynamo Kiev forward Jermain Lens.
Argentina have already been forced to try and find a solution for the loss of one of their key performers. Ángel di María was just beginning to warm up in this World Cup to become Messi’s leading right-hand man when he suffered a thigh injury in a quarterfinal win over Belgium that now rules him out of the clash with the Netherlands. A player who provides key balance to the Argentina team as well as adding a real attacking threat down either flank, Di María’s loss will be keenly felt.
Sabella has all-but confirmed that Enzo Pérez, who came on against Belgium, will start in place of the Real Madrid star at the Arena de Sao Paulo. Perez has had a fine season with Benfica, but has operated largely as a central midfielder, rather than the right-sided role he will be likely be required to operate in on Wednesday.
Perhaps the biggest selection dilemma for Sabella, though, is whether to bring back Sergio Agüero. The striker suffered a hamstring strain in the final group game against Nigeria, but has now returned to training earlier than expected. Ezequiel Lavezzi has stepped into Agüero’s shoes in the meantime and, while hardly setting the World Cup alight, the Paris Saint-Germain forward’s ability to play wide has arguably offered the team better balance. Given that Agüero looked off the pace at the start of the tournament after a season plagued with muscle injuries at Manchester City, it is likely that he will only be seen off the bench.
“Agüero is better,” Sabella confirmed on Tuesday in a press conference. “He has trained with more intensity and he is now fit to play ... let’s see the circumstances of the game if we need him.”
Argentina will, of course, hope not to need him in their continued quest for a first World Cup since 1986. But if they do they will be desperate to see the Agüero of the World Cup qualifiers rather than of the tournament proper. Agüero scored five goals in eight qualifiers and his relationship with Messi, first forged when the two teamed up in the 2005 Under-20 World Cup, was crucial in getting the best out of the team’s talisman.
D: Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo
M: Biglia, Mascherano
Pérez, Messi, Lavezzi
D: De Vrij, Vlaar, Martins Indi
M: Kuyt, De Jong, Wijnaldum, Blind
F: Robben, Van Persie