Fueled by decades of hurt, Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Arjen Robben’s Netherlands squad will carry competing motivations into today’s tantalizing FIFA World Cup semi-final showdown at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Argentina, who last reached the final in 1990, will be determined to pay appropriate homage to former great Alfredo di Stefano, who died on Monday aged 88, while archrivals Brazil could by then be waiting for them in the final.
The Netherlands are eager to rediscover their group stage swagger and prove that they are finally ready to claim soccer’s greatest prize after agonizing final defeats in 1974, 1978 and 2010.
“The semi-finals are fantastic, but we know what it feels like to lose a World Cup and we would love to win,” Netherlands utility man Dirk Kuyt told FIFA.com. “Argentina are a world-class team and they deserve to be in the last four, but we want to measure ourselves against the best and not only measure, but win. That’s why we’re here.”
The Oranje’s final defeat in 1978 came at the hands of Argentina, who won 3-1 as hosts at an Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti in Buenos Aires broiling with the menace of the country’s military dictatorship.
However, this remains the only time in eight encounters that los Albicelestes have bettered the European side, who memorably beat the South American squad a 1998 World Cup quarter-final in Marseille, France, thanks to a majestic last-minute goal by Dennis Bergkamp.
Di Stefano never graced a World Cup, either for Argentina or his adopted Spain, but today, another Argentine great embraced by the Spanish can tighten his grip on this year’s tournament.
Messi met with quarter-final heartbreak at his first two World Cups, but in Brazil, the Barcelona superstar has played with a decisiveness that suggests he may be about to definitively make his mark on the game’s biggest stage.
Oranje dangerman Robben is in similarly scintillating form, but for all the stars on show, the game in Brazil’s sprawling financial capital will also be a painstakingly prepared tactical battle.
The Netherladns needed penalties to see off Costa Rica in the last eight and as the panache that saw them crush Spain 5-1 in their opening game begins to ebb, it is their coach who has taken center-stage.
Louis van Gaal was heralded for a decisive tactical switch against Mexico and then pulled off a masterstroke against Costa Rica by sending on reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul, who saved two penalties in the shootout.
The future Manchester United manager has played with a three-man defense in three of Holland’s five games to date and his innovations mean that his team-sheet will be awaited with great anticipation.
One name unlikely to feature is centerback Ron Vlaar, who is a serious doubt due to a knee injury, with Joel Veltman in line to come into central defense alongside Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij, unless Van Gaal opts for a back four.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella, whose side beat Belgium 1-0 in the quarter-finals, is without influential midfielder Angel di Maria due to injury, but leftback Marcos Rojo is available again after suspension.
Gonzalo Higuain’s goal against Belgium showed that Argentina are not entirely dependent on Messi, but midfielder Javier Mascherano has warned his side that they face an evening of knife-edge tension today.