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.

Barcelona GM: “We’re close to signing Coutinho, Dembele”

Philippe Coutinho
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Barcelona did not post a magical comeback versus Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup second leg, instead losing 5-1 on aggregate after Wednesday’s 2-0 loss at the Bernabeu.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

But perhaps the celebrated La Liga club has worked some wizardry in the transfer market, with not one but two big targets “close” to the Camp Nou.

Barca general manager Josep “Pep” Segura was on television after the match, and noted Spanish football expert Sid Lowe relays his words: Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele are coming to Barca, “but until it’s closed I can’t say anything.”

Well, you just said something about it, so what gives.

Now before anyone freaks out at Anfield or Westfalenstadion, this is a man speaking after a relatively embarrassing performance for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Segura could simply be treading water for new manager Ernesto Valverde after his club was simply worked over in 120 minutes versus its El Clasico rivals.

VIDEO: Asensio, Real Madrid outclass out-of-sorts Barca; PSG trolls?

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This one wasn’t even close, and is going to instantly have many Barcelona fans wondering if the loss of Neymar is going to be too much for Ernesto Valverde to handle.

Real Madrid rode a stunning Marco Asensio strike to a 2-0 first half lead at the Bernabeu on Wednesday en route to a 5-1 aggregate win over Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup.

It’s Real’s 10th Spanish Super Cup, and first since 2012.

[ MORE: Bacca to Villarreal ]

Karim Benzema also scored in the opening frame, which saw Barca looking out of sorts and rudderless.

As in the first leg in Barcelona, the Blaugranas had their moments but failed to show sharpness and class against the reigning La Liga and UEFA Champions League winners.

Lionel Messi hit the crossbar, Luis Suarez headed off the post. The second half wasn’t producing a magic comeback.

Both teams kick off their La Liga seasons on Sunday, with Barca hosting Real Betis and Real off to Deportivo de la Coruna.

Meanwhile, it seems like PSG spent the afternoon trolling Barca, first posting a shot of ex-Blaugranas stars Dani Alves and Neymar training, and then an incredulous Neymar accompanied by a laughing emoji.

Carlos Bacca joins Villarreal, Boateng leaves Las Palmas

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MADRID (AP) Colombia striker Carlos Bacca joined Spanish club Villarreal on loan from AC Milan on Wednesday.

Villarreal said the one-season loan agreement includes the option to buy the player at the end of the season.

Bacca returns to a Spanish league where the 30-year-old forward flourished in two seasons at Sevilla before joining Milan in 2015.

[ MORE: UCL Wednesday wrap ]

Bacca has made 39 appearances for Colombia, scoring 13 goals. According to Villarreal, he has scored 165 career goals in 336 matches. He scored 14 goals for Milan last season.

Elsewhere in Spain, Las Palmas announced that Kevin-Prince Boateng was leaving the club after both sides agreed to end his contract two days before its season opener.

Las Palmas said that Boateng was leaving due to “personal reasons of an irreversible nature.” The club thanked the former AC Milan standout for his “professionalism” that he displayed during his single season on the Canary Islands.

Las Palmas opens the Spanish league season on Friday at Valencia.

Man City has $23 million Evans bid shot down by WBA

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Could Jonny Evans be the latest player to cross Manchester’s red and blue divide, albeit with a stop in between?

Reports Wednesday say West Bromwich Albion has rejected a $23 million Manchester City bid for the Northern Irish center back.

[ MORE: UCL Wednesday wrap ]

$23 million? That’s like 40 percent of a Kyle Walker!

Evans, 29, is the Baggies captain and a key piece of the club’s aims to continue its long stay in the Premier League.

He joined Manchester United’s academy at age 16 and stayed at Old Trafford through 2015, taking loan opportunities at Royal Antwerp and Sunderland on the way.

At United, Evans won three Premier League titles and two League Cups, and also has a Championship win from one of his two stints at Sunderland.

The 61-times capped Belfast native would give City a key component for Premier League play along with a center back corps of Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany, and John Stones. Eliaquim Mangala completes their veteran depth, and is certainly City’s weakest position.

Would West Brom sell at any reasonable price? The Baggies are not deep at center back, either — not too many clubs are — and will be in a boatload of trouble without Evans. And given the transfer market, finding a proper replacement at under $30 million is going to be difficult (Reread that sentence. What a summer).

It’s another argument for the transfer window closing before the start of the season.