Argentina reached their fifth World Cup final after beating the Netherlands 4-2 on penalty kicks in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.
After a draining 90 minutes of tense action in the rain, plus 30 minutes of extra time, Maxi Rodriguez scored the winning penalty after Sergio Romero saved two spot kicks to send the Argentine’s through to play Germany at the Maracana on Sunday.
For only the fifth time in World Cup history a semifinal went to penalty kicks, as both teams locked up their defense and hardly threatened throughout a nerve-shredding 90 minutes plus extra time.
Both Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben came close for Argentina and Holland respectively but the dreaded penalty shootout decided the outcome, as a South American vs. European battle has been set up in a showpiece final in Rio de Janeiro.
The Netherlands will now face hosts Brazil in the third-place match in Brasilia on Saturday.
In a raucous atmosphere in Sao Paulo the game took a while to get going as both sides felt their way into the semifinal.
Some winding runs from Messi and a long-range effort from Wesley Sneijder were the only really attacks to get the fans excited as thick clouds hung over the Arena Corinthians. Then the first meaningful effort on goal arrived as Perez was taken down on the edge of the box and from the resulting free kick Messi struck his shot firmly on target but Cillessen got his entire body behind the ball to save.
Argentina then began to turn the screw and in the 24th minute as the two Ezequiel’s combined. Lavezzi’s out-swinging corner found Garay who headed just over the bar while under intense pressure. There was then a scary moment for Argentina and Javier Mascherano, as the Barcelona midfielder clashed heads with Georginio Wijnaldum in an aerial challenge and stayed down. However after initially looking daze and confused Mascherano got up and continued.
As the first half came to a close there had been only one real effort on goal (Messi’s free kick) as the ultra-defensive tactics from both teams cancelled eachother out. In the first half Robben has just six touches on the ball, while van Persie had 11 as the two Dutch forwards had the fewest touches of any player on the pitch. Argentina, and Holland, were in full lock-down mode.
Daryl Janmaat came on for Bruno Martins Indi at halftime as the Dutch defender had picked up a yellow for a late tackle on Messi and seemed to be hobbling before the interval. A defensive reshuffle hardly saw the Dutch blink, as they continued to frustrate Argentina’s mercurial attackers.
The second half remained just as tight as the first, with a superbly timed tackle from the brilliant Ron Vlaar ( he won 100 percent of his tackles and aerial duels during the match) on Messi thwarting the Argentine captain from a clear breakaway in the 56th minute. Several intriguing battled continued to pop up all over the pitch as the tension, pressure and prestige of making a World Cup final began to eat away at both sets of players. A clever ball from Lavezzi on the right hand side of the box seemed to have found Gonzalo Higuain unmarked at the back post but substitute Janmaat arrived in the nick of time to head the ball away.
Higuain came so close to giving Argentina the lead in the 76th minute as Perez’s teasing cross from the right found the Napoli man sliding into the box, but he toe-poked his effort into the side-netting from six-yards out. Close, but still no goals. In the dying stages of normal time Robben burst through the Argentine defense but holding midfielder Mascherano tracked his run and performed a wonderful last-ditch tackle, as the Albiceleste survived an almighty scare.
As the rain poured down in Sao Paulo, neither team gave an inch as their quest to make the World Cup final entered extra time.
In the opening 15 minutes of the extra period Holland looked lively in attack as Robben began to find more gaps and he sent a stinging drive in on goal that Romero saved easily. The ineffective van Persie was replaced by van Gaal, as he brought on Klass-Jan Huntelaar with his final throw of the dice. That meant no more heroics for Tim Krul, after the goalkeeper was brought off the bench for the quarterfinal against Costa Rica. Argentina also replaced an attacker as Rodriguez came on for Lavezzi.
There was only a small chance for Palacios in extra time after Rodriguez’s delightful chipped pass but he failed to lift his header over the advancing Cillessen. The match then headed to the dreaded penalty shootout for a place in the World Cup final.
Romero saved Vlaar’s opening spot kick, then Sneijder’s as Messi, Sergio Aguero, Garay and Rodriguez scored to send Argentina into the final.
The Dutch were devastated, Argentina was ecstatic.
Argentina: Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo; Mascherano, Biglia, Perez (Palacio, 82′); Messi, Lavezzi (Rodriguez, 100′), Higuain (Aguero, 82′)
Netherlands: Cillessen; Kuijt, De Vrij, Vlaar, Martins Indi (Janmaat 45′), Blind; De Jong (Clasie 62′), Sneijder, Wijnaldum; Robben, Van Persie (Huntelaar, 96′)