Everything is on the line for the Netherlands and Argentina heading into their semifinal clash Wednesday in the 2014 World Cup.
For the Dutch, one more victory would allow for their return to the World Cup final—a stage they lost on four years ago in a heartbreaking extra-time defeat to Spain. Having come this far, there's no doubting that Louis van Gaal has his troops aiming for another title appearance.
Standing in their way is Lionel Messi, who could make these next two matches career-defining ones for him if he can lead the Argentines to the promised land. They're already in the semis for the first time since 1990, but, as Messi chases the prospect of being the best of all time, nothing other than a World Cup title will be expected of Argentina.
Here's everything you need to know for Wednesday's semifinal in Sao Paulo.
Netherlands vs. Argentina
Date: Wednesday, July 9
Start Time: 4 p.m. ET
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Odds: Argentina 7-5, Netherlands 2-1 (per Odds Shark)
Argentina and the Netherlands looked to be the two best nations to come out of their side of the bracket, but to say either got here without bumps in the road would be a lie.
Things may have been somewhat smooth in the group stage, as both national teams won all three matches, but things changed when the knockout stage came calling.
The Dutch's run through the elimination rounds was nearly over as it began. Mexico were just minutes away from stunning the Netherlands in the round of 16, before two miraculous late goals saw the Dutch through. One match later, Van Gaal's men were taken to penalty kicks before slipping past Costa Rica.
It hasn't been quite as dramatic on Argentina's end, but tight, 1-0 victories over Switzerland and Belgium were just as close as the scoreline suggests. Messi has been brilliant in stretches, and the defense has been rock solid, but their goal-scoring prowess hasn't exactly been on display.
Far from dominant, the Argentines have still somehow managed to avoid trailing at any point in Brazil, per Ali Tweedale of WhoScored.com:
While fellow possible-best-player-in-the-world Cristiano Ronaldo flamed out in the group stage with Portugal, Messi has been on his mark in Brazil. Four goals through the group stage had him competing for the Golden Boot, which is still a possibility if he can net two to tie Colombia's James Rodriguez.
But the help around him hasn't always been there. Gonzalo Higuain hasn't been too effective other than his wonder-goal against Belgium, often leaving Messi uncharacteristically in search of his shot instead of passing lanes.
And, to make matters worse, running-mate Angel Di Maria has been ruled out after his injury versus Belgium—but it's being countered with a return of a key player, per Fox Sports News:
The loss of Di Maria is crucial in terms of Messi's help. He has consistently been Messi's biggest aid in the attack all World Cup, finishing his pass to put Argentina over Switzerland late in their knockout affair.
However, with a player of Sergio Aguero's ability coming back into the fold, there's no telling whether the Argentines will figure out how to kick it into another gear. That would be despite only scoring a single goal in three of their five matches in Brazil.
Of course, Argentina's attacking success is only half the battle in getting to the final. Shutting down one of the world's most potent offenses will also be needed.
Leading the attack is Arjen Robben, who has been treacherous for opposing back lines with his speed and goal-scoring vision.
Take a look at how he compares to the Argentina star, per Bleacher Report UK:
It's much more than just the Netherlands' attack for some Argentina players, as Javier Mascherano—Argentina's star defender—admitted that the Dutch side are "faster and stronger" than them:
With all of that said, one team has the likes of Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder. The other has Messi, Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and likely Aguero. The talent level on the pitch Wednesday will be incredibly high, with both sides possessing enough to take over the match completely.
But, just as potent as those attacking formations are, both defenses have been noticeably strong in the knockout stage, with only one conceded goal between them on four matches.
This one could be blown open early on if Messi or Robben captures magic for their respective sides, but it could just as easily turn into a defensive struggle.
At the very least, it should be hotly contested and go down to the wire—not against the norm of this World Cup.
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