Shootout Survivors: Argentina scrape into the World Cup Final on penalties

The South American Continent will have a representative in this Sunday’s World Cup Final. Much to the chagrin of the home nation, it is Argentina; not Brazil who will take to the field in the Estadio do Maracana to take on Germany for the most prestigious prize in Football. Argentina defeated The Netherlands 4-2 on penalties in Sao Paulo to book their place in The Final after an uneventful Semi-Final encounter.

Now this was more like your traditional World Cup Semi-Final, tight nervy and tense from start to finish. After yesterday’s frantic clash between Brazil and Germany, a return to footballing normality only seemed right. Whether one approves of their methods or not, their slow, plodding pace and over reliance on Lionel Messi; Argentina have been the perennial survivors of this World Cup. They do whatever it takes to win. The Albiceleste have not trailed any of their opponents for even a single minute in their seven outings at the tournament so far. Truth be told, they did not once look truly susceptible to falling behind yesterday evening either. It took the Dutch 99 minutes to muster a single attempt on target. The same side that decimated the reigning World Champions Spain 5-1 and rattled in 8 goals in their two opening games were completely blunted. Who said those Argentines are average? In a tight game that saw both teams stick to their shape rigidly; keen to stymie one another rather than go on the attack and risk being caught on the counter; Argentina’s back four were superb. Javier Mascherano in particular lunged in for a number of key tackles after bouncing back up from a nasty, concussive looking collision earlier on in the game. Even Martin Demichelis looked solid; as opposed the error prone and comedic centre half we see week in week out in a Manchester City shirt.

 ITV spent the pre-match portion of the game hyping the potential heroics of both sides’ star men: Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben. Ironically and almost inevitably, neither man stamped their mark on the game. Robben’s teasing runs lacked their usual incisiveness, and when finally clean through on goal in stoppage time, the 30 year old fluffed his lines. As for Messi, he was dire. The four time Ballon D’or winner spent the most important period of the game: extra time skulking around the turf in a manner befitting a lost looking Sunday League player, not the greatest Footballer in the World.

After a slightly less dreary period of Extra Time, the game would be decided by the terrible lottery that is a penalty shootout; a fitting conclusion considering the two sides had been impossible to separate in a mind-numbingly dull 120 minutes. Argentina had taken 8 shots to The Netherlands’ 7, each side had forced 4 corners and possession was split narrowly: 53% to 47% in favour of the Dutch. The Dutch might have fancied themselves having come through against plucky little Costa Rica via a shootout in the quarter-finals, but this time they were missing their trump card. Having run out of substitutions to make, Luis Van Gaal could not opt to bring on Tim Krul, the lanky Newcastle keepers’ heroics against Costa Rica have been well documented; Van Gaal lauded as a tactical genius for the switch. Instead the Dutch would have to turn to Jasper Cillessen to play the role of shootout hero, the Ajax shot stopper had never saved a penalty in his career heading into this evening’s semi-final. If you believe in signs there are none more ominous than that.

Netherlands began the shootout in the worst way possible, Aston Villa Centre Back Ron Vlaar who had been outstanding all game stepped forward, his tame effort down the middle was scooped up by Argentina’s much maligned keeper Sergio Romero. Messi then then coolly converted his spot kick to put his side into a lead they would not relinquish. Romero’s  second save in the shootout, denying Wesly Sneijder was simply outstanding; he hauled his frame into the top corner; keeping Sneijder out to all but quash the Dutch hopes of a comeback. It was then down to Maxi Rodriguez to do the honours, the most important kick of his career saw him send Argentina into their 4th World Cup Final; their first trip to the big dance since 1990. Messi and co celebrated jubilantly, but deep down they know they will need to find another dimension, and step it up a notch to defeat Germany in the final. Alejandro Sabella’s men no doubt watched the German’s ruthless 7-1 destruction of Brazil with trepidation. So far in the World Cup they’ve survived, finding a way to subdue all comers. They will do need to do more than survive on Sunday however, if they wish to clinch the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1986.

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