Defensive encounter denies duo platform to showcase talent
Tight games can be engrossing, but not this one – and Messi and Robben suffered
Lionel Messi of Argentina (centre) in action against Ron Vlaar of the Netherlands (left) and Dirk Kuyt in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photograph: Diego Azubel / EPA
Arjen Robben of the Netherlands reacts after a missed chance against Argentina at Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
It was billed as a head-to-head between two of the most exciting players in the tournament, but this dour semi-final was not fertile soil for individuals to shine. It was wondered whether manager Louis van Gaal had a game plan to stop Lionel Messi playing, and it turned out he had: a conservative strategy, and the sort of high-class collective defending the Netherlands have shown all tournament.
Both men tucked away their penalties – number two for the Netherlands; number one for Argentina – and if that hardly did justice to their talent it did say plenty about their nerve. But that will be small consolation for Arjen Robben, whose leadership and talent had done so much to get the Netherlands so very far.
Messi started the night slowly and regressed from there, to a point where the superb positioning and discipline of the Dutch defenders that thwarted him began to seem routine. He ended up making bad, clumsy errors on the ball. Did he do enough? Should he have led more? These are irrelevant questions now, and Germany will not read anything into this underwhelming display.
It was Robben who had the best chance of the night, a run inside the box right on 90 minutes that was denied only by a fabulous tackle by Javier Mascherano. Robben had tried his best to grab hold of the game in those late stages and in extra time, but Argentina’s defenders were focused too, and where a first tackle missed there was always another player to compensate.
The two sides approached the game with a defensive solemnity befitting the prize at stake. No mistakes, no easy goals. They were in for the long haul – and sadly, so too were those who had to watch. Even the tightest of games can be engrossing tactical battles, but this was not one of them, and Messi and Robben suffered.
Martin Demichelis had told an Argentinian newspaper that the players would get under Robben’s skin, and if the hostility never quite came to pass he was never allowed the space to reach his usual heady speeds. Van Gaal had reverted to his more conservative 5-3-2 system (3-4-1-2 if you want to be fussy), which meant a role up front alongside Van Persie.
This is the position that brings the best from him only if the other team commits players forward, which Argentina did not. Instead of sprints he was forced to nibble around the corners of the box, where Mascherano performed the same function as De Jong, dropping on to Robben when required.
It was Pablo Zabaleta who made the first intervention when Robben stole space at the edge of the area after six minutes, forcing the forward out of the box and then lunging in cleanly. Mascherano dispossessed him in the corner only to flop his clearance, an error that resulted in Wesley Sneijder driving a decent shot wide.
They were small moments but enough in those early stages to leave Argentinians slightly concerned. They needn’t have been: from then on until half-time Robben was peripheral, the Netherlands struggled desperately with the quality of their final ball.
Messi wasn’t exactly firing but at that stage was vaguely threatening. He had no Angel di Maria to play with but Argentina still had their most fruitful attacks down that right side. When Enzo Perez was put clear, Ron Vlaar ended up clipping his heels 20 yards from goal. Messi stepped up and Argentina’s fans rose as the ball flew around the wall only to land safely in Jasper Cillesen’s hands.
It was the story of that first half: vague possibilities, finally unfulfilling. Only just before the break did we see a typical Messi surge down that right side, but his run was checked by Bruno Martins Indi, who was booked.
It felt within the gift of Van Gaal to transform the nature of the match by shaking up his team, which would have done wonders for both of the star men. But he waited and waited, avoiding risk. Once or twice early in the second half Robben found himself further from goal with defenders to run at, but the tackles came in, and you wondered if we’d ever see him in full flight again.
The game became even tighter, and Argentina’s disappearing threat seemed to do nothing for the morale of Messi, who was dispossessed gloriously by a Vlaar tackle, then booted a free-kick from the right straight out of play in a moment that symbolised the deteriorating quality of the action.
And then, almost unbelievably, on 90 minutes Robben could have won the game for the Netherland with the best – or first? – chance of the match. A wonderful flick from Sneijder set him free, but one touch too many slowed his gallop and Mascherano raced back.
In extra-time, Argentina and Messi were barely in it, one surge down the right the only evidence of his threat. On Sunday, against a less defensive side at the Maracana, he will finally have the stage he has always dreamed of.