SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — Argentina will face Germany in the final of the World Cup after Messi and Co. beat the Netherlands on penalties in a dour, tight match in Sao Paulo on Wednesday. The second semi-final was the antithesis of the previous day’s German pummeling of hosts Brazil, with evenly match Dutch and Argentine sides negating each other in a cagey encounter at the Arena Corinthians. Two of the tournaments star players, Arjen Robben and Lionel Messi, struggled to ignite a largely uneventful game with defences very much on top.
It was the Alibiceleste who were the more proactive of the two but after being unable to find a way through a regimented Dutch back five, had to rely on spot kicks to make their way to their first World Cup final since the 1990 defeat to the same team they will take on at the iconic Maracana—Germany.
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The Dutch were uncharacteristically unadventurous—almost timid—a mere shadow of the team that so spectacularly dethroned reigning champions Spain in the opening group game in Salvador. The contest between the two sides that met in the final at Soccer City four years ago stunned the world and exposed a fallibility in Del Bosque’s team that few saw coming. Indeed, many assumed it would be the Netherlands who would struggle in a powerhouse group that contained the Spanish and a reemerging Chile under Jorge Sampaoli, but van Gaal’s tactical nous and insightful adaptations proved vital as the Oranje topped the group.
The Dutch will have mixed emotions as they make their way to the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia for the third place play-off against humbled Brazil. They have undoubtedly overachieved but came within a kick of the final against their great rivals Germany. Louis van Gaal, so lauded for his substitution shortly before penalties against Costa Rica that saw Jasper Cillessen replaced by Tim Krul between the posts, was unable to find a way through Alejandro Sabella’s Argentinians. Having already made their allotted changes, the Netherlands were unable to repeat that change and it was Cillessen—who hasn't saved even one of the 16 penalties he's faced in his short career with Ajax—who squared off against Messi et al. He faced four shots, and got hands to two, but saved none. And just like that Argentina are in the final.
It’s easy to focus on the penalty loss, but other questions remain. Post-match, van Gaal said that two of his players had refused to take the first penalty, leaving it to their best player over 120 minutes, Ron Vlaar, to step up. The Aston Villa centre-half, while only a Javier Mascherano masterclass from being the best player in the defense-first match, is as unlikely an opening penalty as the Dutch could have mustered, and he saw his weak penalty saved. His team were unable to recover.
Undefeated in qualifying, the Netherlands started their quest for a first ever World Cup title brightly, but never quite reached those levels of incisiveness again in the tournament. It was almost as though van Gaal approached that first game against Spain with nothing to lose. But as victories—and expectations—piled up, the cracks appeared in the Oranje side. Against Australia the weaknesses of this Dutch side were exposed, despite another victory. Going forward the Netherlands were irresistible, but defensive frailties saw the Socceroos almost clinch an unlikely result. Two games in, however, van Gaal had six points on the board—mathematically the perfect start for the Netherlands.
It was the Chile game that halted Holland’s momentum, despite another victory. Having already sealed qualification for the knockout stages of the competition, Louis van Gaal rested a number of key players. It's almost as if they never stirred back to life from that rest, as the Oranje struggled to play with the same vivacity in following matches.
Piojo Herrera’s Mexico were dispatched in the last 16 of the competition, but not without a touch of good fortune and a last-gasp winner from the penalty spot. The Dutch side's fluidity, the cohesion and ruthlessness that defined their opening game was a distant memory. The Netherlands had gone from the spectacular to the ordinary.
Two consecutive 120-minute matches without finding the net illustrate the departure from 10 goals in three group games. Of course, there is always an added degree of caution in the knockout stages of any competition, but the Netherlands’ sea change from attacking vigor to defensive mindfulness ultimately proved their downfall.
Despite the defeat, there is much to look forward to from this Dutch side. Held pointless at the European Championships two years ago, there'll be confident heading into qualification for Euro ’16. With a new generation of precocious talents coming up—led by breakout stars from this World Cup—the future is bright for the Oranje. As the mantle of command passes from van Gaal, who will take the helm at Manchester United, to Guus Hiddink for his second spell in charge of the national team, the Netherlands will have to wait for Russia 2018 at least for the elusive title they still covet the most.