Game On: Van Persie starts as Netherlands and Argentina clash in World Cup semifinal

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The nearly 62,000 fans filling the Arena de Sao Paolo will be on their edge of their seat Wednesday evening when the Netherlands meet Argentina to see who joins Germany in the 2014 World Cup final.

For the Dutch, Wednesday’s match marks the sixth time since 1974 that the tiny nation, with a land area half the size of Connecticut, has made the World Cup semifinal. In three of the previous five semifinal appearances, Oranje have made the final but one each occasion have come up empty.

This will be Argentina’s fifth semifinal appearance in the World Cup but only their first in the last 24 years. All four previous trips to the semifinal stage resulted in an Albiceleste victory and twice (1978, 1986) they went on to win the tournament.

FOLLOW LIVE: Netherlands v. Argentina

Both nations arrived the semifinal unscathed but not untested. After a comfortable Group Stage, the Netherlands needed two goals in the final six minutes to overturn a 0-1 deficit to Mexico in the Round of 16 before drawing with Costa Rica 0-0 and winning on penalties (4-3). As for Argentina, it’s been five matches played with single goal victories in each match.

Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella has made two changes from the side that started against Costa Rica, replacing the injured Angel di Maria with Enzo Perez and swapping Jose Basanta for Marcos Rojo in defense. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal has elected to start the recently ill Robin van Persie and has made one change to the starting XI that defeated Belgium, bringing in Nigel de Jong for Memphis Depay in the midfield.

LINEUPS

Argentina: Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo; Biglia, Mascherano, Perez; Lavezzi, Messi, Higuain

Netherlands: Cillessen; Vlaar, De Vrij, Martins Indi, Blind; Kuyt, Wijnaldum, De Jong, Sneijder, Robben; Van Persie (c)

TALKING POINTS

Messi’s Tournament To Lose: With Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar out of the tournament, has this become Lionel Messi’s tournament to lose? Hard to argue that the way hasn’t been paved in gold with the 27-year-old healthy and in the prime of his career. Doing so would go miles not only to getting doubters of his ‘best ever’ status off his back but to replacing Diego Maradona as the country’s hero. Before that happens, though, he must lead his team past a stingy Dutch side.

Robben’s Status In World Football: After a brilliant last few years at Bayern Munich, Arjen Robben’s scintillating performances in this World Cup have the winger deserving recognition as one of the top players in the world. But where does he fit? Certainly behind Ronaldo and Messi but quite possibly ahead of guys like Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Franck Ribery, Radamel Falcao and, dare we say it, Neymar. Harsh? It’s debatable. But the number one reason Holland are in the semifinal is Robben and if he somehow manages to put his team into the final, well, it’s tough to argue that he isn’t firmly in the Top 3 with his eye on next year’s Ballon d’Or.

EXPECTATION

Van Gaal turns his dogs wild on Messi, hacking him to shreds, while Robben puts in a 10+ mile effort with just three blatant dives.

PREDICTION

With a little help from guys like Gonzalo Higuain, La Pulga & Co. persevere setting up incredible scenes for Sunday’s final at the Maracana.

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.

Report: Guardiola close to adding $43m Benfica goalkeeper

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Year Two of the Pep Guardiola era at Manchester City could feature another big goalkeeper purchase.

Claudio Bravo hasn’t panned out in sky blue, and Joe Hart doesn’t look likely to be coming back. Wily Caballero is getting the lion’s share of the minutes right now, playing every minute aside from a trio of FA Cup matches since February.

[ MORE: Podolski scores screamer in German finale ]

$43 million is the fee noted by Abola when it comes to the latest target for Guardiola, a neck-tattooed Brazilian by the name of Ederson.

The Benfica backstop, 23, has 20 clean sheets in 32 appearances this season. He signed a new six-year deal in late January, but money may talk here.

Podolski goes out with super goal; Germany tops England

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The highlight of Wednesday’s international friendly docket was Lukas Podolski‘s final match for Germany, and the former Arsenal man did not disappoint his crowd.

But first, Canada plays its first match since unveiling new coach Octavio Zambrano.

[ MORE: Zlatan still bitter with Guardiola ]

Scotland 1-1 Canada

Zambrano saw plenty to like from his new side, as Canada went ahead early with a goal from former Scottish youth Fraser Aird. Toronto-born, the ex-Rangers and current Falkirk man got his first Canadian goal against the team he represented at U-17 and U-19 levels.

Norwich City’s Steven Naismith redirected Tom Cairney‘s shot to make it 1-1 before the break, but Scotland never found its way back into Canada’s net.

Germany 1-0 England

Lukas Podolski scored his 49th international goal in his final cap for Germany, and it was spectacular.

Joe Hart didn’t stand a chance.

The match saw big stops from both ‘keepers, as Hart thwarted Leroy Sane on a second half break after Marc-Andre Ter Stegen defied Dele Alli in the opening 45.

Podolski subbed off in the 84th minute to wild applause, but it must sting slightly to know you finished an illustrious career one goal short of a nice, round 50. We guess he’ll have to rest on his millions and millions of earnings and loads of on-field honors.

Elsewhere
Vietnam 1-1 Chinese Taipei
Philippines 0-0 Malaysia
Cyprus 3-1 Kazakhstan
Yemen 0-1 Palestine
Cambodia 2-3 India

McClean to wear No. 5 in honor of deceased ex-teammate

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James McClean is a colorful personality who doesn’t shy away from strong opinions — he once called Jurgen Klopp “a bit of an idiot” — and the West Brom man is using the big stage of World Cup qualifying to proudly honor a deceased ex-teammate.

McClean has long before friends with Derry City captain Ryan McBride, who shockingly died hours after leading his side to a league win this weekend. Given his age (27), few saw it coming even after McBride admitted to feeling ill after the match.

[ MORE: Zlatan still bitter with Guardiola ]

McBride and McClean played together at Derry, and the latter was excused from Republic of Ireland training to attend funeral services this week.

He’s still expected to play a role in Ireland’s World Cup qualifier against Wales on Friday, and McClean will don the No. 5 of McBride. Irish defender Richard Keogh usually wears the number and agreed to the change.