After a quarterfinal victory over Belgium which further fuelled talk of emulating 1986 and Diego Maradona, Argentina and Lionel Messi face a semifinal against the Netherlands to stir memories of the country’s first World Cup triumph eight years earlier.
Victory for Argentina in that thrilling final on home soil in 1978 furthered the Netherlands’ reputation as the greatest soccer nation not to lift the World Cup. While Argentina have avoided that fate, since 1986 they can certainly share in their Dutch counterparts’ failure to turn the continued production of world-class players into trophies.
Indeed, Wednesday will see Argentina play in its first World Cup semifinal since 1990. A 1-0 win over Belgium was only Argentina’s second victory inside 90 minutes in a World Cup knockout match since then. Now with Lionel Messi producing brilliance match after match, there are genuine hopes that they can go all the way.
The question remains whether Messi will have to go it alone, and, if so, whether that will be enough in a World Cup that has so far lacked an outstanding team. Angel di Maria had appeared the player most likely to provide Messi with a sidekick, having scored the extra-time winner against Switzerland in the Round of 16 and begun impressively against Belgium. But a thigh injury suffered in the first half of the quarterfinal has ruled him out for the last four meeting with the Netherlands and comes as a major blow for coach Alejandro Sabella.
The good news is that Gonzalo Higuain finally arrived at this World Cup on Saturday. The Napoli striker came into the tournament not at full fitness, and made next to no impact in the opening four matches. Then, against Belgium, he got an early goal and was a player transformed for the rest of the match. Against the Netherlands, Higuain could be joined up front by the fit again Sergio Aguero. Having injured his hamstring in Argentina’s final group-stage match with Nigeria, the striker has now been confirmed fit. Along with Marcos Rojo’s return from suspension, it softens the blow of Di Maria’s absence.
Louis van Gaal and the Netherlands have plenty of their own fitness worries. Central midfielders Nigel de Jong (groin) and Leroy Fer (hamstring) are not expected to recover in time, while defender Ron Vlaar, an ever-present at the heart of the Dutch defense throughout the World Cup is a major doubt with a knee problem.
The injuries will present Van Gaal with fresh considerations over which formation he opts for against Argentina. Having started with a 3-5-2, but switched regularly to the more traditional Dutch shape of 4-3-3, against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals he went to a 3-4-3. Still, the contest proved an almighty struggle for the Dutch against the World Cup’s Cinderella story. Frustrated for 120 minutes, the Netherlands almost lost it near the end of extra time before the latest masterstroke by Van Gaal proved decisive in the penalty shootout.
Entering the final seconds of extra time, Van Gaal brought off goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and replaced him with Tim Krul. The Newcastle stopper was by no means a penalty specialist, but the psychological impact of his arrival played its part in Krul becoming the hero to take the Dutch through.
Van Gaal’s decision took the attention away from the fact that the Netherlands had been unable to beat Costa Rica in regulation time. After an astonishing opening 5-1 win over World Cup holders Spain, the Netherlands have certainly come back down to Earth. Still, they have already exceeded fairly low expectations coming into the tournament by reaching the last four and, in Arjen Robben, they have one of the World Cup’s standout performers.
Van Gaal’s ingenuity has been required in spades in Brazil to maximize the capabilities of what, in truth, is far from a great squad of players. In contrast, his counterpart Sabella has largely been able to get by simply by allowing Messi, and his supporting cast, to do their thing.
However, both coaches face decisions that could have massive implications on the outcome of the semifinal. If Vlaar doesn’t make it, will Van Gaal go with a back four? How will he paper over the hole in midfield caused by the absence of both De Jong and Fer? Meanwhile, Sabella must find the best way to cope without Di Maria, who brings so much balance to the team. Does Aguero return to the starting lineup, even though he lacked sharpness even before his injury and the presence of both he and Higuain left the team unbalanced?
The fact is that Argentina have better players, and even Van Gaal may struggle to compensate for a thin squad weakened further by injuries against a team that come into the semifinal on the back of its most assured performance yet.
Prediction: Argentina 1-0 Netherlands
When and where: The 2014 World Cup semifinal between Argentina and the Netherlands will kick off from the Arena de Sao Paulo at 4 p.m. ET.