The Netherlands could be set to receive a major boost in their quest to neutralize Lionel Messi and beat Argentina to secure a spot in the World Cup final. Nigel de Jong was feared out of the tournament when he went off with a groin injury in the Round of 16 win over Mexico, but reports now suggest there is increasing confidence that the Milan midfielder can make a surprise return for the semifinal in Sao Paulo.
With doubts also persisting about the fitness of fellow midfielder Leroy Fer, De Jong’s availability would be even more welcome for head coach Louis van Gaal. Seen not entirely unfairly as a mere brutal enforcer in front of the back four, an image not helped by his infamous kung-fu kick on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final, he has shown himself to be a much more rounded and influential player in Brazil.
De Jong has effectively shielded what is far from a secure back line, while he has also been key to the Dutch applying pressure in midfield. When in possession, his passing has proved to be better than many give him credit for. As the anchorman, much of his role against Argentina would likely be to prevent Messi finding the pockets of space in which he is so dangerous. In both of Argentina’s knockout games, the only goal came from Messi taking full advantage of such openings between the lines of midfield and defense. The Netherlands lack another player capable of marshaling that area nearly as effectively. Georginio Wijnaldum is energetic and willing, but far from a natural in the role and Jonathan de Guzman is more comfortable with a more defensively able player alongside him.
There is further uncertainty at the back, where the Netherlands’ most experienced defender Ron Vlaar is battling a knee injury picked up in a quarterfinal win over Costa Rica. His absence could see a first start of the competition for 22-year-old Joël Veltman or provoke Van Gaal into altering his formation once more and go back to a 4-3-3.
The possible options to replace De Jong and Vlaar expose what is a thin squad in terms of quality. Having lost Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart to injury before the competition, the lack of convincing options at Van Gaal’s disposal has surely been one of the main reasons why he has altered his team’s system so regularly. With a squad heavily filled out by young players still operating in the domestic Eredivisie and yet to prove themselves on the big stage, expectations were low coming into the World Cup. It is testament largely to Van Gaal’s nous that the team has made it this far. Of course, now in the final four, there is plenty of hope that they can finally deliver the World Cup trophy to the most pedigreed soccer nation never to win it.
If they are to achieve that goal then as well as Van Gaal’s decisions continuing to make him look more mastermind than mad, it will surely also require Arjen Robben to keep lighting up the competition with his brilliance. At the age of 30, Robben is in the form of his life and, while others have occasionally sparkled, he is the one player to have consistently played at a world-class level for the Dutch throughout this World Cup.
Against an Argentina defense that looked more solid in a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Belgium but remains far from impenetrable, Robben will be looking to add to his three goals. Van Gaal faces a decision over where Robben’s abilities can be maximized. Having started the tournament in a central striking role, Robben was moved to a more familiar right-sided role against Costa Rica when the Netherlands went to a 3-4-3 formation. Argentina have shown vulnerability in behind their full-backs in this competition, but Robben would also have the legs to terrorize center-back Martin Demichelis.
Whatever position he takes up, Robben could do with some support from the other experienced star names around him. Robin van Persie started the World Cup superbly with two goals against Spain, but has been poor in the knockout games, while Wesley Sneijder is not on the same level as he was when being the Netherlands’s standout player four years ago and looked that way early on in Brazi. But, while not influencing matches as he once did, the Galatasaray playmaker has produced moments of brilliance in both knockout games. More contributions like his goal against Mexico and two fine shots off the woodwork against Costa Rica could give his team the edge in what promises to be a tight semifinal.
D: De Vrij, Vlaar, Martins Indi
Kuyt, De Jong, Wijnaldum, Blind
F: Robben, Van Persie