Fuelled by decades of hurt, Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Arjen Robben’s Netherlands will carry competing motivations into today’s tantalising FIFA World Cup™ semi-final showdown at Sao Paulo’s Corinthians Arena.
Argentina, who last reached the Final in 1990, will be determined to pay appropriate homage to former great Alfredo Di Stefano, who died on Monday aged 88.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, are eager to rediscover their group-stage swagger and prove they are finally ready to claim football’s greatest prize after agonising Final defeats in 1974, 1978 and 2010.
“The semi-finals are fantastic, but we know what it feels like to lose a World Cup, and we would love to win,” Dutch utility man Dirk Kuyt told FIFA.com. “Argentina are a world-class team and they deserve to be in the last four. But we want to measure ourselves against the best, and not only measure, but win. That’s why we’re here.”
The second of Holland’s Final losses came at the hands of Argentina, who won 3-1 as hosts at a Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires. It is, however, the only time in eight encounters that they have bettered Holland, who memorably won a 1998 World Cup quarter-final in Marseille thanks to a majestic last-minute goal by Dennis Bergkamp.
Di Stefano never graced a World Cup, either for Argentina or his adopted Spain, but on Wednesday another Argentine great embraced by the Spanish can tighten his grip on this year’s tournament. Messi met with quarter-final heartbreak at his first two World Cups, but in Brazil the Barcelona superstar has played with a decisiveness that suggests he may be about to definitively make his mark on the game’s biggest stage.
Dutch dangerman Robben is in similarly scintillating form, but for all the stars on show, the game in Brazil’s sprawling financial capital will also be a painstakingly prepared tactical battle.
Holland needed penalties to see off Costa Rica in the last eight and as the panache that saw them crush Spain 5-1 in their opening game begins to ebb, it is their coach who has taken centre-stage.
Louis van Gaal was heralded for a decisive tactical switch against Mexico and then pulled off a masterstroke against Costa Rica by sending on reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul, who saved two penalties in the shoot-out. The future Manchester United manager has played with a three-man defence in three of Holland’s five games to date and his innovations mean that his team-sheet will be awaited with great anticipation.
One name unlikely to feature, however, is centre-back Ron Vlaar, who is a serious doubt due to a knee injury. Joel Veltman is in line to come into central defence alongside Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij, unless Van Gaal opts for a back four.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella, whose side beat Belgium 1-0 in the quarter-finals, is without influential midfielder Angel Di Maria due to injury, but left-back Marcos Rojo is available again after suspension. Gonzalo Higuain’s goal against Belgium showed that Argentina are not entirely dependent on Messi, but midfielder Javier Mascherano has warned his side that they face an evening of knife-edge tension on Wednesday.
“We know that we are going to play against a team that is at its best when playing on the counter-attack, because of the pace they have in attack,” said the Barcelona player. “We need to make sure we don’t lose the ball unnecessarily. Concentration will be key, along with the way we set our stall out in the match, and we will need to be patient when it comes to making decisions.”