World Cup Semi-Final | Sao Paulo | Wed 9 Jul | 9pm
The After The Lord Mayor's Show semi-final.
With the sole exception of that 5-1 spanking of Spain getting on for a month ago now, it could be argued that neither Holland or Argentina have played anything close to the kind of football you'd expect of two teams contesting a World Cup semi-final.
Not that that particularly matters, for while the best team generally wins the World Cup, history is littered with teams who did little to convince that they deserved a place in the final four – Poland in '82, England and Argentina in '90, South Korea in 2002. It's not always the cream that rises to the top.
The knee jerk reaction here should be to suggest this will be a monumental encounter and a game worthy of a World Cup semi-final, based on history, stature, star names and all that business. Then you remember how hopelessly dull Argentina have been in reaching this point, and how up and down the Dutch have been, and you start to wonder if maybe you're expecting too much. But, as England showed in 1990, what has gone before often has no influence on what follows, so we live in hope.
Few expected the Dutch to win this World Cup, the general view being that the Oranje were a little too green. "There are eight to 10 teams better than we are," was Louis van Gaal's assessment before the finals began. Yet the demolition of Spain (albeit an already demoralised Spain) and the slow dawning that there aren't eight to 10 teams better than Holland has forced an upgrade in everybody's expectations.
"We want to just beat Argentina – and then bring the World Cup home," was Dirk Kuyt's new assessment, which overlooks the fact they'd also need to actually win the final first but illustrates the squad's confidence.
Argentina, by contrast, were considered one of a handful of teams with a genuine hope of winning this World Cup. Five largely laboured games later, they too have required a downgrading in everybody's expectations, particularly with Angel di Maria lost to injury.
There were signs against Belgium they were finally waking up. A quick start brought an early goal, and thereafter the Argentines kept Belgium at arm's length and managed their way to the semis without any real drama. It wasn't pretty to watch or what we expect of World Cup winners, but Argentina won't much care.
What the local media say
De Telegraaf has identified the greatest danger to Holland's hopes as being Lionel Messi. But they have also identified Holland's best hope of stopping him. "De Jong must stop Messi" screams their headline, describing Holland's pitbull as "the secret weapon against Argentina".
Meanwhile Argentine daily Clarin asks: "What will you do to stop Robben, Argentina?" adding "the Dutch lefty is the logical concern, Alejandro Sabella... but you have not yet defined the system to stop him."
Key battle: Arjen Robben vs Lionel Messi
Not a direct battle, of course, but it's no secret that both men provide the spark for their teams and both will be crucial. "Robben is to the Netherlands what Lionel Messi is to Argentina," says Wesley Sneijder. "He constantly occupies two or three opponents, creating space for others."
Of the two, Messi has had the greater impact so far, scoring 4, creating a World Cup high 19 chances for others and also weighing in with 29 completed dribbles, the most of any player in Brazil. Robben's 3 goals, 15 chances and 25 completed dribbles are hardly slack, and factor in his ability to conjure penalty-kicks from thin air and you begin to see his worth to Holland. Whoever has the more productive night should help his team progress.
Facts and figures
- Argentina have progressed from all three of their World Cup semi-finals.
- Argentina’s victory in the 1978 final is their only win against Holland in 8 meetings overall – losing 4 and drawing 3.
- Holland made 692 passes against Costa Rica, the most they’ve recorded in a single World Cup match between 1966-2014.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Based on their journeys to this point, the heart says Holland. Sadly, the head says Van Gaal has been making this all up as he goes along, and that his luck will eventually run out. 2-1 Argentina.