On Wednesday, Argentina and the Netherlands will face off in a World Cup semi-final. The two squads are closely matched in skill and intensity. The expectation on Robben’s and van Persie’s shoulders to create chances can be matched only by the pressure that Lionel Messi feels to bring a World Cup home to Argentina.
Both teams staved off threats in the quarterfinals, and both have unfinished business in the World Cup final. The Netherlands look to win after coming agonizingly close to their first World Cup championship four years ago, only to lose on a goal in the 117th minute. Argentina looks to return to glory not felt since Diego Maradona led the Argentine side to a championship in 1986.
While a championship is the ultimate goal, and while the match at hand is the most important, their respective paths to this point must inform the moment.
Both teams’ journeys
After losing four years ago in the World Cup final to the Spanish, the Netherlands National Football Team entered the draw with a desire to prove that their appearance in the final four years earlier was not a coincidence. They breezed through the group stage, scoring 10 goals and only surrendering three. Perhaps their finest match was a 5-1 drubbing of Spain in the opener, which saw Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie score four of the five goals for the Netherlands.
After advancing out of the group stage undefeated, the Oranje moved through to the quarters with a 2-1 victory over Mexico. However, the Netherlands nearly stumbled against Costa Rica, missing multiple opportunities to put the game away. Due in large part to backup keeper Tim Krul’s phenomenal instinct for knowing where the penalty kicks would go, they advanced with the not-so-pretty line 0-0 (4-3), setting themselves up for a semi-final meeting with Argentina.
Argentina came in hungry for a championship, having not won since the 1986 tournament, when Maradona scored his infamous “Hand of God” goal. Argentina relied on its Chosen One, Lionel Messi, throughout the group stage. Messi was responsible for scoring four of the five goals that the Argentine side registered during the group stage, helping the team to a perfect record in Group F.
The group stage exposed some flaws in the Argentine team, though. They were shut out by Iran (ranked No. 44 in the world) for 91 minutes before Messi finally found the back of the net. Gonzalo Higuain was a no-show, failing to provide support for Messi and di Maria. Also, Sergio Agüero was injured in the final group stage game, a 3-2 win against Nigeria. The Argentines advanced past Switzerland by a score of 1-0 before punching their ticket to their first semifinal appearance via a 1-0 win over Belgium.
Key matchup to watch: Van Persie and Robben vs. the Argentine back four
In Argentina’s quarterfinal vs. Belgium, the back line successfully held solid against the Belgian attack, emphasizing the “bend, don’t break” philosophy. In contrast to Belgium’s six total goals, however, the Netherlands team has scored a total of 12 goals in only 75 attempts, or an average of a goal every 6.3 attempts. The Argentines have let up only three goals on 16 shots so far, but the Netherlands attack is far more deadly than any that they have faced yet, and the match will depend on their reactions to attacks by the Netherlands offense.
X-Factor: Sergio Agüero
Angel di Maria was ruled out of Argentina’s semifinal vs. the Netherlands, and the Argentine side will definitely miss his playmaking ability and creativity in the midfield. However, a return to form by Gonzalo Higuain, who scored the only goal in Argentina’s quarterfinal win, and the expected return of Sergio Agüero, held out for two games due to a muscle strain, should help soften the blow. How Agüero does in his return will go a long way in determining the outcome of this match. If he plays well, it will clear lanes and space for Messi to work his magic. But should Agüero not be in form for the match, it will be a long day for Argentina.
Man under the most pressure: Lionel Messi
Messi came into this World Cup with only one goal: to win it all. Anything less would be considered a defeat for Argentina. For Messi, winning means achieving the same status that Maradona holds in Argentina, that of legend. Should Argentina lose, it will be another four years before he can try again. Four years of him being asked if he can win the World Cup. Four years of him being compared to Maradona. Messi is 27, in his prime, and he will most likely never have another chance as promising as this. Expect him to leave it all on the field Wednesday.
The Netherlands will feature a strong attack against the Argentine side, but the back four will not be broken by the attack. Messi knows what is at stake and will do everything in his power to win. Argentina advances in exciting fashion, 2-1.
Tim Hanna is a contributing writer of Three for Ten Sports.