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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# Thriller
Argentina hold nerve on penalties to see off Dutch in World Cup epic
Argentina blew a 2-0 lead with seven minutes of normal time remaining only to triumph on spot kicks.

Netherlands 2

Argentina 2

Argentina win 4-3 on penalties

LIONEL MESSI’S WILD World Cup dream has survived another frenzied epic, Argentina blowing a two-goal lead and taken to penalties by the flinty Dutch, only to regather the nerves that had abandoned them in the face of the Dutch onslaught and edge their way to a World Cup semi-final against Croatia.

This game was either going to be the last stand of Lionel Messi or Louis Van Gaal and the unique vision of both men ensured it ended in a mad, technicolour deadlock before Emi Martinez’ shootout saves from Virgil van Dijk and Teun Koopmeiners allowed his namesake Lautaro the kick to win it. 

wcup-netherlands-argentina-soccer Ricardo Mazalan Lionel Messi. Ricardo Mazalan

Messi created the first goal with a pass that nobody else could see and was seconds from the semi-finals until Argentina were done by an audacious Dutch free-kick routine right out of Van Gaal’s uniquely truculent, insistent vision, a deft routine from the edge of the box that was finished by Wout Weghorst in the 101st minute.

When Messi added to Molina’s goal with a second-half penalty it seemed Argentina would cruise to the semi-finals, until Van Gaal sent for Weghorst and let loose all chaos, his 83rd-minute header creating a nervy finish before finishing the comparatively nerveless free-kick routine. 

Ultimately for the Dutch it wasn’t enough, and the ideal vision of Messi’s farewell has endured another heady night. Perhaps it was too soon for him to leave: that Messi’s dreams would be stomped out of existence by Weghorst would have been the football equivalent of getting Capone on tax evasion.

The night’s absurd drama wasn’t augured by its opening exchanges, Lionel Scaloni’s change to a back three to match the Dutch leaving both sides in stalemate. It took Messi to break it, proving that looks don’t kill in football: imperceptible glances do. 

Messi took the ball from Molina in his usual Position of Minimum Opportunity, deep in midfield and surrounded by a stifling mass of orange shirts.

He instantly put Frenkie de Jong in check without needing the ball, deceiving him with a swivel of the hips. A trademark shimmy then bewildered Nathan Ake, and Messi was now clear, hurtling wide-eyed to goal. He picked a diagonal line to buy some time time.

He dribbled and his eyes darted quickly to their right-most corner. Not yet

He dribbled further, and then shot another glance at a part of the pitch no Dutch player – and no viewer with any respect for trigonometry – thought worth watching. Now. 

He then swung himself around the ball and with a kind of liquid sling of his left foot he played the pass, threading the eye of a needle only he knew existed. He only turned his head to follow the direction of his pass after he played it. And only then did the Dutch know they were deceived, though they knew it too late. Nahuel Molina ran through the gap, took the ball in his stride and prodded it beyond Andries Noppert, just ahead of the desperate lunge of Virgil van Dijk. 

Forever ahead of everybody else, Messi even read Molina’s celebratory run to the corner, standing by to be the first to embrace him. The goal was both an emblem of Messi’s genius – he runs less than anyone nowadays while doing more in every moment – and a validation of Scaloni’s tactical switch. 

That change worked again in the second half. Having clipped Netherlands’ wings they gobbled lame Dutch attempts to play through the centre of the pitch, and should have had their second goal long before they did, with Julian Alvarez butchering a counter-attack with an overcooked pass to Rodrigo de Paul. 

The second goal was ultimately created by Argentina’s other wing-back, Marcos Acuna jutting back into the penalty area and having his legs swept from under him by Denzel Dumfries. Another Messi glance undid the Dutch from the spot, tricking Andries Noppert by keeping his gaze from the corner into which he slammed the ball. 

Van Gaal had seen enough, reimagining his ‘Total Man’ theory in a very literal sense by wheeling out the largest single man in the Lusail Stadium, 6′ 6″ Wout Weghorst, whom God created when he pointed his way and said, Let There Be Burnley. 

His impact was immediate, flicking Burghuis’ delicious cross beyond Martinez with what was the Netherlands’ first shot on target.

Havoc instantly reigned. Weghorst’s fellow Big Man Luuk De Jong knocked down a long ball which Berghuis saw deflected into the side netting. Argentina instantly fretted in these long Dutch shadows, Paredes sliding in late on Ake and then blootering the ball at the Dutch bench, kickstarting a mass shoving match which ultimately suited Argentina. The longer the ball was dead the less it spent in the air, flying to Mount Weghorst. 

But those Argentine nerves frayed too far. In the 10th and final minute of added time, German Pezzella mindlessly barged into Weghorst on the edge of the box. Argentina steeled themselves for one last shot, instead the Dutch cooly – audaciously – borrowed Van Gaal’s vision.

Van Gaal has been defined for better and for worse by his magnificent conviction, and what followed was one of that quality’s most iconic manifestations. Better than the execution of the free-kick was the courage to attempt it.

This time Messi and Argentina didn’t see the space but Teun Koopmeiners did, faking to shoot and then threading a pass through a gap for Weghorst, who steered the ball beyond a stupefied Emi Martinez. The Argentine fans were struck dumb, Messi stared, eyes blazing, at the grass. Minute 101. Room 101. 

spqatar-lusail-2022-world-cup-quarterfinal-ned-vs-arg Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Wout Weghorst celebrates his improbable equaliser. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Argentina, now in the throes of disaster, lashed out, confronting the referee and jostling with Dutch substitutes as their awful reality sank in. The first half of extra-time passed in a kind of stunned daze, nobody quite sure how they were still out there, playing through the same minutes they had at the end of the first half.  

Scaloni introduced Angel Di Maria for the final 15 minutes and Argentina pressed for a winner, Van Dijk making a stunning block from Lautaro Martinez’ whipped shot. Argentina kept pushing: Pezzella headed over from Di Maria’s corner, Noppert beat away Martinez’ long-range shot, and then Enzo Fernandez rattled the post with his long-range drive. 

Thus it went to penalties. 

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Virgil van Dijk promised Van Gaal he would be first to take a spot kick in any shootout and he kept his word, but was foiled by Martinez. Messi was next to trot up, cooly slotting the ball beyond Noppert, stretching his arms out in celebration. 

Steven Berghuis was next up for the Dutch and, to the whistles of the desperate Argentine crowd, he missed too, denied by Martinez. The Dutch didn’t miss another penalty but nor did Argentina until Enzo Fernandez stood up with a chance to win it…and dragged his penalty wide of the post. Luuk De Jong forced Argentina to win it.

netherlands-v-argentina-fifa-world-cup-2022-quarter-final-lusail-stadium PA PA

That job fell the way of Lautaro Martinez, who has spent this tournament so jittery that he’s lost his place in the team. But tonight he swallowed a gulp of air, steadied himself, and slammed the ball beyond Noppert. 

Thus Louis leaves the world stage with an epic befitting his reputation. 

Leo’s brilliant dream leaves on.

It is brilliant because it’s so brittle. 

Netherlands: Andries Noppert; Jurrien Timber, Virgil van Dijk (captain), Nathan Ake; Denzel Dumfries; Marten De Roon (Teun Koopmeiners, HT), Frenkie De Jong; Daley Blind (Luuk De Jong, 64′); Steven Bergwijn (Steven Berghuis, HT), Cody Gakpo, (Noa Lang, 113′)  Memphis Depay (Wout Weghorst, 77′)

Argentina: Emiliano Martinez; Christian Romero (Germán Pezzella, 77′)Lisandro Martinez (Angel Di Maria, 111′), Nicolas Otamendi; Nahuel Molina (Gonzalo Montiel, 105′) Enzo Fernandez, Rodrigo de Paul (Leandro Paredes, 66′), Alexis Macallister; Marcos Acuna (Nico Tagliafico, 77′); Lionel Messi (captain), Julian Alvarez (Lautaro Martinez, 80′)

 

 

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