First to 7 wins, right lads?
OK, so nothing – surely – can compete with the most extraordinary result in World Cup history, but this second semi-final is still worth a good anticipatory drool. The tournament’s biggest star still standing takes on a side managed by Brazil 2014’s most impressive coach. It’s Lionel v Louis.
Argentina arrive in the semi-final having won every single game so far by a single goal. Predictions that their four-pronged attack (Messi, Higuain, Aguero, di Maria) would be so overwhelmingly powerful that their weak defence wouldn’t be a problem have proved to be wrong on both fronts. Their gameplan: give it to Lionel Messi until he gets you a goal. If you do score, kill the game.
Alejandro Sabella, the Argentine coach who always looks like he’d rather be at home with a cocoa and a sudoku, has one big personnel problem: Angel di Maria, whose endless charging from midfield to attack provides both a separate threat to Messi’s dribbling and the only regularly effective link with Messi, is out injured. Sergio Aguero could return, but in the group stages he merely got in the way of Messi and the stuttering Gonzalo Higuain.
Alternatively, Sabella could stick with lightning-quick but extravagantly wasteful left-sided forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, but he’s not a player to frighten quality opposition.
That means Dutch coach Louis van Gaal has to place even more emphasis on stopping Messi, since if he does that, the Netherlands ought to win. Talk from the camp is that holding midfielder Nigel de Jong is fit again, in which case Messi faces being hustled, muscled or simply face-kicked out of the game.
Failing that, a feature of the Dutch march to the semi-final has been Van Gaal’s flexibility at the back: whether there are three, four or (most likely) five there, he’ll have a scheme.
Up front, Holland’s answer to Messi is Arjen Robben, careering down the right where he’ll face Argentine left-back Marcos Rojo, who returns from a ban. If Robben drifts into a more central position and ends up running at Martin Demichelis, that could be hilarious, although not if you’re Argentinian.
Robben’s regular partner Robin van Persie has the squits and might not be able to play, but he’s been fairly quiet anyway since the opening game against Spain, and the raw pace of likely replacement Jeremain Lens will frighten Argentina just as much.
So for master tactician Van Gaal, the plan is clear: man-mark Messi and indeed the rest of the Argentina midfield, then hit them quickly and directly with the sprinting Oranje forwards.
Except, this game – and the final on Sunday – might just be Lionel Messi’s footballing destiny. Nobody’s totally shut him down so far, no matter how many men they’ve put on him. The best coach in the world can’t stop a moment of genius. Does Lionel have one in him?