Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By CAITLIN MURRAY
With Brazil’s shocking crash and burn in the semifinal round, it looks all the more like this may be Argentina’s World Cup. The factoid has been repeated plenty of times: No European team has ever won a World Cup in South America.
Perhaps lending credence to the theory that history will repeat itself, the Netherlands may not be able to put out a full strength squad when they face Argentina in Wednesday’s semifinal. Captain Robin van Persie has been dealing with an upset stomach, making his inclusion a game-time decision, according to coach Louis van Gaal.
Argentina have made their way through this World Cup with patient and oftentimes late wins — not decisive rough-and-tumble blowouts — and the Dutch will need a leader to control the pace of the game and keep the Dutch sharp for a full 90 or 120 minutes. Normally, that might be the aggressive midfielder Nigel de Jong, but his inclusion seems unlikely after suffering a groin injury. He did train with the Dutch on Tuesday, but it may very well prove to be another psychological tactic from Van Gaal.
Unlike the Dutch, Argentina will no doubt have their best player, four-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, who many say needs to win a World Cup to cement his place in soccer history. But Messi cannot do it himself and he will be short one man.
Angel di Maria, the goalscorer who helped Argentina squeeze past Switzerland in the Round of 16, is ruled out for Wednesday’s semifinal with a thigh injury. His absence is certainly a big blow for the Argentines as they prepare for their first World Cup semifinal since 1990. Mercifully, Sergio Agüero is freshly back from the same injury that ails Di Maria and can play the role of Messi’s sidekick. Agüero may not have the chemistry with Messi that Di Maria does, but Agüero is a deft finisher who can make an impact for the South American side.
It seems this is the World Cup that Argentina really wants and Brazil’s exit certainly had set the stage for Messi’s side to shoulder the expectations — but it won’t be easy. Without Van Persie or De Jong, the Dutch will surely turn to playmakers like Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to drive their attack. Not a team of just one or two stars, the Dutch have scored 12 goals so far in the World Cup from seven different goalscorers, meaning Argentina’s defense will need to be organized and tight to prevent openings.
Meanwhile, Argentina has scored just seven goals in Brazil, with Messi accounting for four of them himself. The pressure may be on Messi to continue carrying Argentina, but the Dutch will certainly be looking to keep him at bay. That, of course, is what every team that has faced Argentina to date has attempted to do, but it’s a tall order to stop the Barcelona star for a full 90 or 120 minutes. Messi has shown he can convert on the chances he does get, however few that may be, and he will be the player of the match to watch.
It’s unlikely the fireworks (and embarrassment) of Germany’s 7-1 thrashing Tuesday of Brazil will be seen in Argentina-Netherlands — these two sides look more evenly matched in their approach and confidence coming into this pairing. But if fate exists and storylines matter, then it just may be Argentina’s turn to advance to the World Cup final and finally give Messi that elusive title.