Lionel Messi and Argentina may prove to be a bridge too far for the Netherlands

Difficult to split two teams with pedigree and proven match-winners

Won't somebody think of the children? Thankfully someone did at Louis van Gaal's press conference in São Paulo yesterday, when the manager was asked whether kids in the Netherlands should be allowed to stay up to watch the climax of tonight's World Cup semi-final since they all went to bed so late the night they beat Costa Rica.

This is a fixture of which dreams are made, and Van Gaal was in no doubt.

"I would always allow my children to watch the match because this is absolutely unique I think. I would strongly advise parents to let their children watch the match. The chances are it will be as late or even later, because Argentina are at a higher level than anything we have seen so far."

It was a peculiar note on which to finish, but an apt one too, as indeed it is fearsomely difficult to split two teams with pedigree and with match-winners who are each facing their toughest test.


The Netherlands made hard work of their two knockout games, but Argentina really only found form against a Belgium side that played into their hands in their quarter-final, and you wouldn’t be convinced they are the finished product yet.

Groin injury

After originally being ruled out of the tournament with a groin injury sustained against Mexico, Van Gaal’s holding midfielder Nigel de Jong trained yesterday – a “miracle”, it has been called – and is now in with a shout of starting tonight, in which case he would be looking after

Lionel Messi

. A job not for the faint of heart or tight of groin, you would think.

“He tried out today and we’ll have to wait and see how it looks tomorrow,” Van Gaal said. “Because if you return to the pitch so quickly [after injury] you’ll always have a reaction. If the reaction is good tomorrow then he can play football.”

The same goes for defender Ron Vlaar, who has a knee injury, and Robin van Persie, who sat out training yesterday with a stomach problem, although it would be a major surprise if those two do not start.

If De Jong is fit you could see Van Gaal reverting to a similar lineup, or at least shape, to the ones that beat Spain and Chile, with PSV forward Memphis Depay returning to the bench and the team happy to concede possession.

Attacking helpers

It is tempting to consider this as a straightforward contest between Messi and

Arjen Robben

; if either of those two is decisive tonight they will run out player of the tournament. Although their match-winning qualities will be important, so too will the contributions of their attacking helpers. Angel di Maria’s injury is a serious setback for Argentina mitigated by Gonzalo Higuain’s return to scoring form, but it may be the performance of the Dutch front three that determines how this game swings.

Wesley Sneijder began the World Cup quietly, but he has grown in influence, while Van Persie is even more key, assuming he recovers. Playing as sharply as he did before suspension, the Netherlands have a big chance; playing as he has in the knockout stages you fear they may come up short.

Argentina manager Alejandro Sabello's selection choices appear more straightforward, with Marcos Rojo returning from suspension at left back, Martin Demichelis set to continue at centre-back, and Enzo Perez continuing for Di Maria on the right. As ever, their hopes lie on getting the best from Messi, or on Messi getting the best from himself. He was so at ease against Belgium that you would fear for the Netherlands.

Special plans

Van Gaal said there were no special plans for Messi but he did offer a short, understated assessment when asked what he admired about Argentina’s playmaker. “I believe Messi was once elected best football player in the world. That’s not for nothing. If you score so many goals you do have an added value. On the most important stage he can always pull it off. In principle he’s found it difficult to do that at a national level. He wants to change that at this tournament and we want to stop him doing that.”

There is little to separate these countries of rich traditions, but you feel that in Messi, Van Gaal may finally have a problem he cannot solve.