The second of the semi-finals was never going to live up to the standards set by the first, but it was not excessive to expect something mildly more exciting than the dire goalless draw and ensuing penalty shootout victory for Argentina over the Netherlands. Nonetheless, with a World Cup Final set up against Germany on Sunday, there are plenty of talking points as the competition reaches its climax.
Did Van Gaal really prove that he is a tactical genius?
Relative to pre-tournament expectations at least, these are dizzying heights for the Dutch. Even manager Louis van Gaal gave his side only a 20 per cent chance of making the quarter-finals and many tipped them to crash out of a tough group, but the Oranje have come through the tournament surpassing any realistic hopes they had harboured a month ago. The 5-1 win over reigning world and European champions Spain that they kicked things off with was an unbelievable result that put the Dutch amongst the favourites to win the competition.
Incoming Manchester United manager van Gaal was lauded with praise for his tactics, as young wing-backs Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat put in brilliant performances to provide for the frontmen. But Spain's tactics that day played into the hands of the counter-attacking Dutchmen, and since then Holland have been fairly fortunate to beat both Australia and Mexico, were largely unconvincing against Chile and required penalties to overcome Costa Rica before failing to find a way past Argentina. Playing 3 at the back is considered rather daring by many, but the Dutch were far from that last night. Van Gaal had the players to shackle Messi and co., but struggled to find a way to influence the game with substitutions of his own, and questions are being put forward as to whether he really is the genius he was initially made out to be.
Lionel Messi's critics
Argentina's talisman continues to attract attention for the wrong reasons despite continuing to provide countless reasons to believe he is one of the best ever. A below par and ineffective performance against the Dutch was less than we expected of such a fantastic player, but his opponents' gameplan was clear from the off. Bruno Martins Indi was booked for a foul on him when he arguably should have already been on a yellow having cynically trod on Messi's foot, and every time Messi picked up possession he was quickly surrounded.
He had only one shot but with no Ángel Di María, Netherlands had little other threat to take specific counter measures against; almost all of their attention was on Messi, and it was understandably extremely difficult for the diminutive forward to have an impact, but that is not reason enough to write him off. If you give him space he will punish you, and he still managed 10 successful dribbles in that match - a 2014 World Cup high. The fact that he was providing such a problem for the Dutch restricted what they could do in attack when they gained possession. Quite why he still has a point to prove is beyond the best of us.
Ron Vlaar was good before last night
It has been said in some quarters that last night's game showed just what Ron Vlaar is capable of when not surrounded by his 'substandard' Aston Villa teammates, but as fans of the Midlands club will attest, he has been performing to that end for quite some time now. He brings organisation and power that is invaluable to any defence and has been to Villa since he joined. In that time the club have won 30.5% of their Premier League games with 'Concrete Ron' starting and only 11.8% without him, and with Messi shackled Vlaar showed exactly why that is the case for his club. 12 clearances, 6 interceptions and 4 tackles, including a potentially goal-saving tackle as Messi wound up to unleash a shot from 20 yards sums up his night. A man of the match performance and rating of 9.16 on this grand stage will have vastly increased his stock, but as was the case before the tournament Villa will be desperate to hold onto their captain for another year, even at the risk of him leaving on a free next summer. Why? Because he's that good.
Why has Javier Mascherano been playing at centre-back for Barcelona?
It speaks volumes about a match involving Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben that Ron Vlaar and Javier Mascherano were arguably the best players on the pitch. Despite suffering an early head injury that should probably have forced him off, Mascherano was everywhere, with more touches of the ball than any teammate (104) and stopping countless Dutch attacks with a number of heroic tackles, including one to deny Arjen Robben a clear chance on goal late on. He has now made more tackles (28) than any other player at the tournament and that figure is likely to grow in the final against a German side that will dominate possession. His performances at the World Cup have evoked memories of how he used to play for Liverpool. The common theme? A midfield berth.
Barcelona's dearth of centre-backs has meant Mascherano has spend much of his time at the club in defence when he is much better suited to central midfield. Barcelona lost some key games in both the Champions League and domestically this season when a double pivot of the Argentine and Sergio Busquets would have shored things up. Lionel Messi is plainly Argentina's most important player, but Mascherano isn't far behind, and he is good enough to be similarly key for his club, too.
Can Argentina win the World Cup?
The semi-finals won't have convinced many onlookers that Argentina can beat Germany in Sunday's final, but there certainly were positives to take. Alejandro Sabella's team have yet to concede a goal in 330 minutes of action in the knockout stages and they did an extremely effective job of stopping Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, even if they themselves couldn't find a way past their opponents. Germany have even more in reserve up front, as they showed against Brazil, but Argentina will provide their sternest test yet. If Argentina can get Di María back to fitness in time for the final (which they surely will do all they can to) there will be more space than Messi found against the Dutch. If they can then hold out at 0-0 for the opening exchanges, they have plenty of individual class capable of stealing an unlikely victory.
What were the main talking points from the second semi-final? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below
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