The second semifinal of the 2014 World Cup was an opposite of the first. Where the first match had precision, space, and inventiveness the second was tight, tentative, and largely predictable. The first forty five minutes of the first semi final saw five goals in the net, the second semifinal had zero goals in 90 minutes. Where the first semi was not really a contest, the second semi was contested in all areas of the field and even tactically by both managers.
The Dutch started the match very content to cautiously move the ball around midfield. Making the easy pass when possible and experimenting with floated balls toward Van Persie when the moment seemed to present itself. Argentina found repeated success with diagonal balls down the right to Ezekiel Lavezzi, but despite his ease of access he was unable to create any true scoring opportunities. Lionel Messi had a couple of runs down the middle but were ultimately snuffed out by a Dutch defense that had been keying on him since the teams lined up in the tunnel.
The Dutch decision to play Nigel De Jong as an extra central defender when Argentina was in possession left Javier Mascherano free to make long passes. The Dutch decision to play a clearly still ill Robin Van Persie left the Argentine central defense without much to do for the first 90 minutes. Where the decision to bring on Clasie for De Jong early in the second half was a good one, bringing the Dutch forward and keeping the ball on the Argentine side of the field more often than it had in the first half, the decision to start Van Persie meant that a couple of chances were turned into non-chances. Obviously a competitor of the highest order he likely made a strong case to Van Gaal for his inclusion but he looked like he was moving in slow motion and he squandered a few opportunities that he ordinarily does a lot more with.
Toward the end of the first half and through the beginning of extra time the Dutch began to assert themselves more and more from a possession standpoint and Argentina were forced to focus more on defense. The Dutch had a lot of the ball but weren’t doing much with it so Argentina was content to let them knock it around a bit just make sure that nothing got behind them. Messi saw very little of the ball, but then again the same could be said nearly the entire Argentine squad with the possible exception of Romero , the keeper.
Another anonymous figure in this match was the referee. The first twenty minutes of the match sailed by with only a solitary off side call. There was a lot of jersey grabbing and arm and shoulder pull backs but the referee was content to blow his whistle only when absolutely necessary.
Extra time saw a couple of half chances for Argentina. A Palacios header that had no power behind it. A Maxi Rodriguez attempted volley that went straight to the keeper. The Dutch had more possession but were unable to create even half chances. At about the 115 minute mark it seemed that both teams had resigned themselves to the inevitably of penalty kicks.
Having used all their substitutes during the course of the first 120 minutes, the Dutch were unable to bring on their penalty stopper Tim Krul. This was ultimately the deciding factor in the match. Romero made a couple of good guesses and stopped two of the first three. His opposite number, Jasper Cillessen, looked bewildered, nervous, and generally like he’d rather be anywhere other than where he was. The penalty shootout was as one sided as the rest of the match was close. Romero made two saves for Argentina, Cillessen didn’t get a hand or foot to any of the four shots he faced. The Oranje did well to not let Messi beat them but were undone by their keeper’s inability to stop penalties.
At this level the margin of error is razor thin and if FIFA had allowed four substitutions instead of three the result might’ve been different. Either team could say that they deserved to win. The only what-ifs for the Netherlands would be “what if Van Persie was 100%” or “what if we’d started Huntelaar”. Argentina, for their part, will have to put the emotion of this match behind them and do their best to recuperate from the exertion of 120 minutes of tense play. A World Cup final in front of what will likely be a very blue and white crowd awaits only four days from now.