Sergio Romero was the hero for Argentina with two penalty saves to send his side into the World Cup final after a 4-2 shootout win over the Netherlands. With the scores still goalless after 120 minutes in their semifinal in Sao Paulo, Argentina went four for four from the spot, while Romero came up big to keep out efforts from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder and secure a meeting with Germany and a rematch of their last World Cup final, which ended in defeat in 1990.
At the opposite end of the emotion scale will be Romero’s opposite number Jasper Cillessen, who failed to keep out any of the spot-kicks he faced, despite getting his hands to two of them, including the decisive one smashed home by veteran Maxi Rodriguez. The dramatic finale came just four days after the Netherlands won a penalty shootout for the first time ever in a World Cup when Tim Krul had taken the place of Cillessen and made three saves from Costa Rica. This time Krul remained on the bench and the Netherlands failed to garner a chance to avenge their defeat in the final four years ago.
The Netherlands had kept Lionel Messi shackled throughout, but posed next to no attacking threat, with star forwards next to anonymous. Argentina were the more proactive team for much of the contest but, missing the injured Angel di María and with Sergio Agüero only fit enough for a place on the bench, they were unable to find a break through.
While the goal-mouth action on view was in stark contrast to the historic drubbing for the hosts just 24 hours earlier, some of the defensive work on show in Sao Paulo deserves huge acclaim. Javier Mascherano was exceptional for Argentina, dictating play at the base of midfield and, alongside Lucas Biglia, showing admirable discipline without the ball, including with a match-saving tackle right at the end of 90 minutes to dramatically Robben with his one chance in the match. At the other end, when Messi escaped the shackles of man-marker Nigel de Jong, Vlaar was on hand to clean up in what was the performance of his life. It was especially cruel then when the Aston Villa no-thrills Aston Villa center-back stepped up first in the shootout and had his effort saved to pave the way for Argentine delight.
For 120 minutes Vlaar had been a big part in ensuring chances were few and far between. With two of Argentina’s star attacking quartet missing, coach Alejandro Sabella had his team incredibly solid without the ball, belying their defensively suspect reputation. His counterpart Louis van Gaal was delighted to welcome De Jong back from injury and gave the midfield enforcer a man-marking job on Messi that he relished. Argentina’s savior throughout this World Cup was never able to find the space he thrives on between the lines.
The Dutch focus on Messi and their content to contain and play on the counter helped hand Argentina the advantage in midfield. And it was they who posed the biggest threat going forward for almost the entire semifinal. Argentina focused in on the Netherlands’ left flank and when Ezequiel Lavezzi switched with Enzo Pérez to attack down that side, they were dangerous. The Paris Saint-Germain forward’s crosses largely failed to come off , but his corner set up the best chance of the period when Ezequiel Garay dove to head over the crossbar.
Sensing that was where the threat was, Van Gaal took off left-sided center-back Bruno Martins Indi at half-time and replaced him with Daryl Janmaat. And that avenue was shored up until 15 minutes from the end of regulation time. Pérez found some space and put in a fine cross behind the Netherlands defense that Gonzalo Higuaín stretched to reach but agonizingly poked the ball just the wrong side of the post.
By that point, De Jong’s legs had gone and young Jordy Clasie came on for his first ever World Cup appearance. Still Messi couldn’t find any space, with Vlaar making one particularly memorable tackle to deny Argentina’s No. 10. It wasn’t until the dying stages of the 90 that the Dutch finally created a chance. Sneijder’s flick brilliantly found Robben, who looked clear through on goal and poised to score a dramatic late winner. Instead, Mascherano produced his best moment of a starring performance to somehow deny him.
In a continuation of much of the second half, extra time showed two teams desperate not to throw their shot at the final away before penalties. Two of Argentina’s substitutes did have chances, but first Rodrigo Palacio headed tamely at Cillessen when he could have taken a clean shot and then Rodríguez failed to make clean contact with a volley.
Thankfully for Argentina, the 33-year-old struck his penalty truly and emphatically when it came down to him in the shootout as Cillessen failed to match the heroics of Romero, or, indeed, Krul. Van Gaal’s decision to replace Van Persie with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar had left him unable to make the same bold switch he made against Costa Rica. Instead Cillessen remained without a single penalty save in his career.
Argentina will now hope that they can contain a rampant Germany in the final and prevent a penalty being decisive in the German’s favor, just as it was when Andreas Brehme’s kick denied them back-to-back triumphs in 1990.