Argentina's World Cup campaign started in the Maracana and will end there—either in ultimate glory or most painful defeat.
On Wednesday, the Albiceleste struggled through another difficult, tense and tight contest, this time with Netherlands. After successive 1-0 wins in previous rounds, this was a 0-0 game of even stauncher defensive resilience.
Both sides did a fantastic job in nullifying the other's strengths: a fine tactical achievement, but not one that resulted in entertaining football for the neutral observer.
This was a boring game, to put it mildly, and it was little surprise that it eventually went to penalties. In the previous 120 minutes there had hardly been a chance of note, let alone a save, so it was a form of blessed relief for those that had stuck with the game that penalties would decide who would move on to face Germany in the competition's final.
After swapping his goalkeepers in the quarter-finals to great effect, this time Louis van Gaal opted against the same trick—either because he did not believe lightning could strike twice or simply that he had three other tactical changes he wanted to make as a greater priority. That left Jasper Cillessen to finally face the drama of the shootout, for better or worse.
Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be for worse.
Bizarrely, Ron Vlaar—who did not take a penalty against Costa Rica—went first for the Dutch, and his tepid attempt was easily saved by Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero. From there, it always looked like Argentina's evening, especially when Wesley Sneijder's penalty was also stopped, brilliantly this time, by the acrobatic Romero.
After Sergio Aguero scored his subsequent spot-kick, the scoreline was 3-1 in Argentina's favour. Dirk Kuyt made it 3-2 straight after, but even so the Oranje remained one penalty from going out. And so that proved to be their fate—as Maxi Rodriguez lashed his kick beyond the despairing Cillessen to book his country's place in the final.
Surely, this is the result the neutral will have wanted. The greatest player of his generation will play on the biggest stage of all, against a team that has just pulled off one of the greatest results in a generation.
It promises to be a spectacular ending to a brilliant tournament.
Results in brief - Day 28
Netherlands 0-0 Argentina - Argentina win 4-2 on penalties
Argentina will face Germany in the final of the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday July 13.
Netherlands will face Brazil in the third-place play-off in Brasilia on Saturday July 12.
1. Notes from Day 28
Concussion drama... For the second time in this World Cup, there was debate surrounding the correct treatment of head injuries after Javier Mascherano suffered one early in the first half. Unlike Alvaro Pereira, who was substituted by Uruguay soon after his suspected concussion against England, Mascherano did not go off—despite stumbling horribly to the floor in the moments after clashing with Georginio Wijnaldum.
Many on social media suggested Mascherano should have been substituted for his own safety, even though he seemed to recover sufficiently to make a vital last-ditch challenge to stop Arjen Robben winning the game in the final minutes.
It is hard for FIFA to cover every eventuality, but after recent revelations involving NFL players, perhaps it needs rules in place for concussion treatment. The player, his coach and his medical staff are always going to be reluctant to force him off—perhaps an independent medical expert is needed in such situations to make the call for them.
Statistical interlude... This was the 34th semi-final in World Cup history, but it was the first to go goalless for an entire 120 minutes. So there.
Squad management... With the introduction of Jordy Clasie in the second half of Wednesday's game, Louis van Gaal used his 20th and final outfield player of the tournament—his entire squad (bar third keeper Michel Vorm, who will probably play some part in the third-place play-off) has now played at least some part in one of their games.
Received wisdom is that a 23-man squad is not always necessary, that only 16 or 17 players are ever likely to be involved. Van Gaal showed that not to be the case.
Krul to be kind... Not saving a substitute in order to bring on Tim Krul for the penalty shootout was a sensible move from Van Gaal—it was a gambit that was never likely to be as effective again. Still, it put a huge amount of pressure on Cillessen to repeat the heroics of his understudy, and one wonders if he had any confidence left after the trick that was pulled against Costa Rica. It certainly did not pan out well for either him or his team.
Going with the form book... Prior to today, Cillessen had never saved a penalty in his professional career. That unfortunate record goes on, then.
2. Quote of the Day
I taught Romero to stop penalties, so that hurts
- Dutch coach Louis van Gaal (per AFP)
3. Tweet of the Day
4. Goal of the Day
Well... in the absence of one, here's Maxi Rodriguez's winning penalty (one Cillessen perhaps should have saved).
5. A good day for...
Germany. They could sit back and relax, as their opponents on Sunday had to go through the physical stress of extra time and then the mental stress of penalties, already in the knowledge that they would have a day's extra rest over Argentina (as the winners turned out to be) for the decisive game. With neither side showing too much to fear (in the attacking sense, at least) this was a perfect day for Joachim Low's side.
6. A bad day for...
Those newly converted football fans. One day after being drawn to this wonderful sport by Germany's thrilling, amazing demolition of Brazil, those fans hoping for a follow-up had to sit through a dull, attritional 120 minutes in which a goal scarcely ever looked like being scored. Way to build on that momentum, football!
7. Tomorrow's schedule
We now have another two days off before the tournament's conclusion, with the third-place play-off scheduled for Saturday afternoon and the final taking place on Sunday evening.