When two astute coaches meet, teams often cancel each other out. That’s what happened on a wet, cold night in the second semi-final of the World Cup here on Wednesday before goalkeeper Sergio Romero took Argentina to the final, their first since 1990.
Like heavyweight boxers, Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina and Louis van Gaal’s Holland spent the first half sizing each other up. Both jabbed more than they punched, waiting for the opportunity to land what could be the decisive blow.
That meant little happened for long swathes of time. Both teams tried every now and then to force the pace, but they could not manage anything decisive for most of the game.
This, despite players of the calibre of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie being part of the match, which, at times, seemed like a battle between two chess Grandmasters who had turned up as football coaches.
Argentina probed the right inside channel trying to exploit space that Martins Indi and Daley Blind were leaving. Long balls were played in that area for Messi, Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Every time they cut in, Holland’s backline faced stress.
With Holland playing three centre-backs — coach Van Gaal’s hand being forced by the combination of injury to defensive midfielder Kevin Strootman and his desire to play three creative players — there would be space to be exploited and instead of trying to go wide, Argentina preferred working on the inside corridor.
It is a measure of how coaches react to situations that Van Gaal replaced Indi with Daryl Janmaat and switched Dirk Kuyt to the left in the second half. Janmaat gave the Dutch the width Indi couldn’t. And he was faster than Indi.
Argentina ended the first half stronger but it was Holland who could have escaped to victory in regulation time.
Holland’s quality of deliveries wouldn’t have satisfied Van Gaal and that was why Van Persie’s tireless running between the Argentina central defenders wasn’t rewarded with the striker seeing more of the ball.
Holland looked better defensively than going forward and of the reasons for that was that Sneijder and Robben were reined in by Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano.
The two Dutch medios though combined once late in second-half stoppage time and Robben would have scored but for Argentina’s most valuable player Mascherano making a superb tackle. Mascherano again made a crucial interception in the first half of extra-time.
Any team that plays against Messi has to come up with an idea to keep the genius in check. Man-marking him is pointless because when Messi is not involved, he tends to drift away and take his marker with him. That makes the rival team lose its defensive shape, which Messi’s teammates can then exploit.
Switzerland put two tough defensive midfielders on him. Holland zone marked him with either Sneijder or Nigel de Jong and after him Jordy Clasie.
And when Messi moved into the front third, the Dutch centre-backs were never far away from their defensive midfielders. It kept Messi quiet. It was again a tribute to the way the Dutch defensive trio played that all of Messi’s final deliveries were intercepted.
But Messi being Messi, he managed to have one final say, moving on the right and cutting in. He followed that with a measured pass from the goal line, which Maxi Rodriguez should have done better than to shoot straight to Holland goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen. Earlier, central defender Ron Vlaar denied Mesi with a timely tackle.
Unlike against Costa Rica, reserve keeper Tim Krul — the penalty hero against Costa Rica — couldn’t be brought on for the second successive shootout because Holland had used up their substitutions.
Penalties are about luck but the fact that Cillessen hadn’t saved a single penalty in 16 attempts would not have escaped Van Gaal.
Had the Dutch coach not wasted a substitution on Indi, who compounded his problems with a yellow card in the first half, he would surely have preferred to bring in Krul.