So apparently not every World Cup semi-final is memorable. But come on guys, surely you could have come up with something better than this?
No? Hmph. In the end a penalty shootout (and a pretty rubbish one at that) was needed to decide this tense semi-final in Sao Paulo, won by Argentina after goalkeeper Sergio Romero saved twice. Alejandro Sabella's men will face Germany in Sunday's Maracana final, while the Netherlands will take on hosts Brazil for third place. A sigh for them.
In truth, though, Louis van Gaal's side showed little ambition until the latter stages. Like Brazil on Tuesday night, however, they started reasonably well. Dirk Kuyt, again playing at right-full-back, saw much of the early possession but struggled to make it count in the final third.
Slowly but surely, Argentina began to make some early moves. As the first half wore on they were passing the ball with far more intent than their European opposition, although still failing to trouble the Netherlands' three-man central defence.
Albiceleste hitmen Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi were largely joyless from start to finish, the former having to pick up possession deep and wide while his skipper struggled to involve himself in the game.
Argentina were causing trouble down the right. Enzo Perez was proactive until being substituted with 10 minutes remaining, completing all 3 of his take-ons and laying on the second-half pass that Higuain put narrowly wide. In the first half, his hard work pulled Bruno Martins Indi out of position and gave Porto's new signing a rough ride. The defender was booked for a tug-back on Messi, and brought off at half-time.
So, nothing to get excited about at the break. In all there'd been 3 efforts on goal; 1 hopeful long-range strike from the Netherlands, and 2 for Argentina. Neither keeper was troubled for the last 23 minutes of the half. Between them, the two nations crafted just 1 goalscoring chance of their own making: Argentina, from a corner.
Each nation's go-to man was struggling. Arjen Robben hadn't got out of first gear, receiving just 4 passes all half and making 1 of his own. Messi, meanwhile, was still having to pick up the ball out wide and hadn't tested Jasper Cillessen. By full-time (after 120 minutes) he hadn't touched the ball in the opposition box.
After the break it was the Netherlands who again started brightly, dominating the ball early on.
Manchester City's ponytail-less centre-back Martin Demichelis was mopping up well at the back, making 6 interceptions, while Ezequiel Garay beat away everything that came his way: by this point his 11 clearances were 7 more than anyone else. He finished with 15, the record for an Argentine at the tournament so far.
Like in the first half, Argentina gradually found a foothold. Messi and Perez were positive in their running, although the former hit brick walls whenever he went direct through the middle. It was a surprising decision to bring off Perez – up to that point he had been the South Americans' brightest attacking outlet.
No matter what anyone did, though – very little, really – chances remained at a premium. The Netherlands didn't fashion an opening for themselves until the last minute, while at the other end only Higuain went close with an effort that rippled the side-netting.
And so, to the 99th minute, and a shot on target for Van Gaal's men. Hooray! It came via Robben with their 5th attempt (including 1 blocked), 1 of 4 from outside the box. It didn't help that their crossing was proving fruitless: just 1 of 16 balls from the wing had found an orange shirt.
Extra-time was a drab affair (by now you might be sensing a pattern) – penalties were inevitable. First up to take a spot-kick was Aston Villa stopper Ron Vlaar, whose performance over the 120 minutes was outstanding. The 29-year-old was a reassuring presence at the heart of defence, distributing the ball well (65/71 passes), winning 4/5 tackles, making 6 interceptions and 11 clearances. His penalty wasn't quite so reliable...
There's no getting around the idea that Argentina have made it to the final winning ugly, and often unconvincingly. Sabella's boys have kept clean sheets in each of their three knockout games so far, but will surely need more if they're to see off a buoyant Germany side in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. Thankfully for them, little Lionel is still yet to be properly let off his leash.
Facts and figures
- Argentina have progressed from all 4 of their World Cup semi-finals.
- Argentina have won 4 of their 5 penalty shootouts at the World Cup.
- The Netherlands have lost both of their semi-final shootouts (the first coming vs Brazil in 1998).
- 7 of the 14 knockout games at this tournament so far have gone to extra-time, the most since 1990 (8).
- The Netherlands failed to register a shot on target in the opening 90 minutes, taking until the 99th minute to have an effort on target.
- This was the first World Cup semi-final to end 0-0 (including extra-time).
- Arjen Robben attempted just 1 pass in the first half against Argentina.
- Ezequiel Garay made 15 clearances in this game, the most by an Argentine at this tournament.
- Only Michel Vorm is yet to make an appearance at this World Cup from the Dutch squad.
- Argentina still haven’t trailed at any point during this World Cup.
- Argentina have lost just 1 of their last 17 World Cup games (W12 D4, not including penalty shootouts).
- Jasper Cillessen has now faced 8 penalties in Eredivisie, 3 in the Champions League and 6 at the World Cup but has saved 0 of them.
- Cillessen did, however, make 2 successful dribbles in the game.
- South American teams have won 8 of their 10 shootouts against countries from other continents.
- It will be the third time that Argentina and Germany have contested the World Cup final (1986 and 1990).
- Lionel Messi did not touch the ball in the penalty area during the 120 minutes.
- Netherlands came close to becoming the first team to fail to score in their quarter-final and semi-final and still make the World Cup final