The weight of history rests on the shoulders of today’s inheritors of the orange jersey and that of the blue-and-white striped shirts. Past players of the three-time finalist and the two-time champion have clashed in many World Cup classics, and Argentina against the Netherlands again promises to be a cracker of a game.
A wiser Louis van Gaal, back at the Dutch helm, had bolted shut the creativity of Lionel Messi, then at his peak, when they last met in the semifinals of Brazil 2014. Messi was subdued, but Argentina still went through as Wesley Sneijder and Ron Vlaar missed their penalties.
His team, van Gaal insists, is ready for all eventualities. “We support players in a scientific way to practise penalties and we hope we will have a minor advantage if we have to take penalties,” he said in his pre-match press conference.
The Argentines, though, had failed to win the two previous meetings – in 1998 and 2006 – Lionel Scaloni, the youngest manager here, does not want the game to go down to the uncertainties that shootouts bring. “We can’t think about penalty shootouts from now because then our focus would be lost. We should first look at 90 minutes and win the game,” he said. “The most important is how we try to damage the opponent and not get damaged ourselves. We have analysed the Dutch team and will set our team accordingly.”
A six-day break after an emotional round-of-16 win over the Aussies has helped the Argentines as the team utilised the free time to relax and rejuvenate with their families. “Moments with family members are important to unwind and enjoy the World Cup. Till the Australia game we had played four matches in 11 days, but now we are rested and ready, physically and mentally,” Alexis Mac Allister, who scored against Poland, said.
Angel Di Maria’s left-side runs and constant changing of positions was missed during the Australia game, but Scaloni expects the veteran to be available and help disrupt Holland’s plan of using Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind through the wings.
The Dutch had been relatively untested in group-stage wins over Qatar and Senegal before facing moments of trouble against the United States. While Memphis Depay gradually improves his fitness and game, a young Cody Gakpo has been its breakout star with three goals from four games. For Argentina, Messi has benefited from the introduction of a more mobile Julian Alvarez and has already attempted 4.8 shots on goal per game – the second most at this World Cup after Kylian Mbappe’s 5.3 – and played 3.3 key passes (the most per game).
Van Gaal has been combative about the media’s notion of the Dutch under him adopting a negative game, moving away from the rampant free football of Johan Cruyff.
He was angsty again when asked about his 3-5-2 system. “My vision has evolved; I was head coach of Ajax with a very offensive DNA and in Barcelona I learnt that you can’t always pursue that. And then, I started thinking about football in a different way and in World Cup 2014, you would have seen that vision and more teams are now using that. Football is evolving and it’s not easy to play the offensive way Ajax used to play. We also press, push and do it in varied ways, and not just defend. Brazil is also doing almost the same thing as the Dutch,” he said.
The Dutch manager has an axe to grind against Di Maria as well. The Argentine winger had called his former Manchester United boss “the worst coach of my career”.
“I am very sorry that Ángel Di María once said that I am the worst coach he has ever had. Here next to me sits Memphis. He was also in Manchester. And now we kiss on the mouth,” the oldest manager at this World Cup said. “We didn’t see eye to eye then but now we work together, and I want to kiss him on the mouth, but looks like now he doesn’t want that.”
Van Gaal’s jokes may be a little stale, but his Netherlands team will hope to be fresh and ready to scuttle the ceremonial ‘Leo Messi last dance’ that this World Cup is fast becoming.
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