By Mike Woitalla
The Dutch came into the semifinal after going 120 scoreless minutes against Costa Rica and needing a shootout to advance. The Argentines mustered only one goal against Belgium in their 1-0 round-of-16 win.
Argentina enjoyed a home team environment and enough Dutch Orange-clad fans arrived in Sao Paulo to rock Arena Corinthians. The action on the field did not match the atmosphere in the stands.
By the time Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir started getting the shootout ready, the Dutch had completed four hours of scoreless soccer. The Argentines had gone nearly three and a half since hitting the net.
This scoreless tie was pretty much a stalemate. The Dutch had three shots on goal, the Argentines five. Neither goalkeeper had to make a difficult save. Neither team ever took charge or ever looked a likely victor.
And both teams’ main and usually brilliant attackers, Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben, delivered average performances, exposing the limitations of their supporting casts.
But in the shootout, Argentina keeper Sergio Romero saved efforts from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder. The Argentines were perfect: Messi, Ezequiel Garay, Sergio Aguero and Maxi Rodriguez.
Argentina is going to its first final since finishing runner-up in 1990 to West Germany. The Argentines face the Germans on Sunday at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The Dutch face Brazil, the 7-1 semifinal loser to Germany, in Saturday’s third-place game.
The Dutch will be thinking about …
Their disappearing offense. The Netherlands’ start to this World Cup -- denting defending champion Spain’s net five times in the opener and finishing group play with 10 goals -- now feels like ancient history. The Dutch had counterattack opportunities that stopped coming as the tournament went on. And Robin van Persie, who scored three first-round goals including the famous diving header, has now in his fifth major tournament, including two Euros, failed to score in the second round.
Their coach’s tactics. Pre-tournament criticism of Coach Louis Van Gaal’s 5-3-2 lineup as being too defense-minded dissipated quickly because the wing backs Daley Blind and Dirk Kuyt attacked so much, and then Van Gaal was hailed as super clever for subbing in goalkeeper Tim Krul for the Costa Rica shootout. Today the defense bunkered down, the attack listless, Krul stayed on the bench -- and Van Gaal no longer looks like a genius.
The Argentines will be thinking about …
The other semifinal. For sure, the Argentines will be pleased at having survived two strong teams in Belgium and the Netherlands, the runner-up four years ago. But those seven goals that Germany banged in against the host send a pretty clear message that the Argentines must figure out how break down a defense, not just depend stifling the foe while hoping that Messi rediscovers his Midas Touch.