If last night was the most shockingly one-sided result in this World Cup, then tonight’s semi-final should prove to be a much more tight and evenly matched affair.
It would be astonishing to see such a one-sided game as we witnessed in Belo Horizonte yesterday, but Argentina must be wary of that sensational Dutch performance against Spain in the opening days of the tournament in order to avoid a repeat of the Brazilian capitulation to the efficiency and ruthlessness of the Germans.
The script so far couldn’t be much better for Argentina fans. Brazil are out, humiliated in spectacular fashion, and as they awoke this morning to celebrate the anniversary of Argentina’s independence, they could take great pleasure from the fact that their side, while not yet looking scintillating, have ground out the required results to progress to this competition. That last point is perhaps the most important one when considering this Argentina side.
The Argentine optimist would point to the fact that despite not playing any beautiful or magical football, Argentina are still in the competition with a side which is most definitely capable of delivering the aforementioned excitement. They have battled to single goal victories against each of their previous 5 opponents and when Lionel Messi has been needed to provide inspiration, he has delivered almost faultlessly. Surely it is only a matter of time before the entire team clicks and they produce the exciting attacking football that they are capable of with Messi, of course, still the architect.
A cynic however, may highlight this too and point to a side which relies too heavily on their number 10, one of the many mistakes which the Brazil side is most certainly ruing this morning. Messi will, unlike the injured Neymar, feauture in his sides semi-final, but one fears for Argentina should he pick up an injury. What is the backup plan then, if the playmaker, talisman and captain is taken off at any point?
When it comes to style, Argentina have shown that they have a Plan A in this tournament, pass, pass and pass again, preferably as many times to Messi as possible. Expect the Dutch to try and stifle Messi quickly if he tries to merely touch the ball in their half of the field and expect Messi to stay in that central role regardless, just waiting for that one moment when someone loses concentration, slips and he is allowed to be free.
It is impossible to discuss this fixture and not pay due attention to the force which is Lionel Messi. It is certain that Louis Van Gaal has a plan for the Barcelona man, but plenty of other managers have laid such plans before, only to see them ripped to shreds by ‘El Messiah’. The fact that Messi consistently continues to find his space, work his magic and decide games single-handedly serves as a reminder of just how much class the Argentine captain possesses.
However, Van Gaal has demonstrated an acutely brilliant tactical aptitude in this tournament, surprising every onlooker, not only with his preparation for the opposition but also his adaptation to them and especially the timing of it.
Holland showed against Spain that they have the ability to produce the kind of performance that Germany did last night to destroy their opposition and perhaps this will force defence to be the primary focus of Alejandro Sabella as he prepares his nation for their first semi-final appearance since Italia ’90.
For Argentina, the real danger is that the Dutch show up and replicate that performance against Spain and this is not as unlikely as it may seem. The Argentine defence hasn’t looked by any means impenetrable throughout this tournament. The shape of the Spanish side is not too dissimilar from that of Argentina’s and their strength in attacking by pushing the full backs on could also be their most appealing weakness from a Dutch perspective.
Sabella then, cannot allow this to be exposed by the likes of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, however the double-edged sword here is that to get the absolute best out of Messi the rest of the Argentina side need to create space for him. The most effective way of doing this is to push men forward on the flanks, pulling centrally positioned players out to the wide areas and allowing the number 10 those little pockets of space he so adores. This then is where the game is most likely won or lost for Argentina. If Zabaleta and Rojo can, at the right moment, be released from their defensive duties to support the attacks, with Mascherano as cover, they could create that space which Messi thrives in. For Rojo, with the marauding Arjen Robben to guard, the decision of when to go and when to stay will be crucial to his side’s chances of success.
Yes, Aguero returning will make a huge difference to their attacking potency. He has the ability to operate in the same kind of gaps and pockets that Messi does and it is a tall order for any side to completely deny their opposition any form of space in the final third for a full 90 minutes. Aguero though is perhaps not at the peak of fitness and that may prove decisive.
So Holland will play primarily on the counter and Argentina will look to profit from any gaps in the highly organised Dutch wall which will face them. This has all the makings of a classic heavyweight encounter; Messi vs Robben, Europe vs South America and so on. Argentina, however do not want a classic piece of entertainment for the neutral. They will be happy with 1-0 in the last minute, as of course would the Dutch.
This is a World Cup semi-final and last night the nearly men of the last 4 tournaments showed up, perhaps not with more of a desire for victory than their opposition, but crucially more of an understanding of how that victory could be realised. The Dutch are the nearly men of the World Cup. They have, despite all their generations of supremely talented footballers, somehow never managed to win the trophy. If Van Gaal can impart them with the pragmatism that served Germany so well then there could well be more tears for South Americans this evening.