In a World Cup that was blessed with early shocks and drama, the business-end of the tournament had, up until last night, yielded few surprises. The Netherlands might not have been everybody’s pick before the contest started, but after they swept aside a strangely apathetic Spain in their opening game, there was a sense of inevitability in the Dutch reaching their second World Cup semifinal in a row. Argentina too, seemed nailed on to reach their first semifinal since Diego Maradona and co. defeated the Azzurri at Italia ’90, thanks mostly to a favorable draw in Brazil. Yet neither team has particularly excelled en-route.
Argentina’s run could at best be described as lethargic. That everything revolves around the twinkle-toed Lionel Messi is hardly surprising—he’s the best player in the world, even if the official crown is on loan to Cristiano Ronaldo this year. Yet unlike Portugal—where Ronaldo, at times, looks like a ringer on a pick-up team—Messi is aided and abetted by a star-studded squad that includes Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria. But, partly owing to injuries and partly owing to iffy form, that supporting cast is yet to gel, and it’s been Messi who has dragged Argentina this far (4 goals, 1 assist). Given the depth of attacking talent at Alejandro Sabella’s disposal, perhaps most surprising is that they’ve yet to win a game by more than a one-goal margin. They needed a last-gasp moment of Messi magic to spare their blushes against Iran; they needed the goal post to save them from a penalty shootout with Switzerland; and they never really looked like extending their lead against Belgium.
The Netherlands too have failed to dazzle after their 5-1 bulldozing of Spain in the opening game. They were fortunate against Mexico in the last 16, and they had to rely on penalty kicks to overcome a spirited and well-drilled Costa Rican team in the quarterfinal. Sure, the Ticos stubbornly parked 10 men behind the ball for much of the game, but the Dutch seemed short of ideas on how to storm the back line, even with the trickery and pace of Arjen Robben. And when they did eventually scramble the odd chance, Robin Van Persie was uncharacteristically off-key (an air kick yards from goal with two minutes to go the obvious highlight for the blooper reel). Still, in Louis Van Gaal they have a manager with a proven knack for changing games with his substitutions. Memphis Depay, Leroy Fer and Klaas Jan Huntelaar have all come off the bench to score winning goals in Brazil. And the decision to bring in goalkeeper Tim Krul for the penalty shootout against Costa Rica proved a masterstroke in gamesmanship (Krul’s most recent penalty-stopping record was actually fairly poor).
So how to call this? The head-to-heard record strongly favors the Netherlands (4 wins, 3 draws and 1 defeat). The most recent World Cup encounter was a 0-0 draw in 2006 during the group stages, but most people will probably recall Dennis Bergkamp’s dramatic injury-time winner in the Netherlands’ 2-1 victory in the quarterfinals of France ’98. The Dutch also had to navigate their way out of a far tougher group in Brazil, even if they arguably had the easier draw in the knockout stages. Yet on South American soil, and with Argentina’s traveling support akin to having home-field advantage, the Dutch will likely need to put in an unforgettable performance if they want another stab at the trophy on Sunday.