Lionel Messi, the best player of his generation, now faces the best team of this World Cup, Germany, in Sunday’s mouth-watering final in Rio. Messi was one of Argentina’s four successful penalty-takers as they deservedly overcame the ultra-defensive Dutch after two stultifying hours of football.
The Germans must have been looking on from afar, smiling at the sight of their next opponents straining their sinews in the rain. They will have looked at Argentina and know they are superior, particularly if they can ensnare Messi as the Dutch did.
Messi is a special player, a talent who deserves this final chance, but he was unable to impose himself until the shoot-out. But he now has the stage to parade his undeniable gifts. The world will be watching. Those who chronicle the first draft of history will judge on events at Maracana whether Messi can be hailed as a legend of the game along with his compatriot Diego Maradona, with Pele, the man who so graced Maracana, and with Alfredo di Stefano, whose memory was saluted emotionally before kick-off here.
Victory for Messi and company ensures the re-establishment of one of the great historic World Cup fixtures, a match that has been decided down the years by shoot-outs, by German routs, even a post-match ruck and most famously in two finals.
Sunday represents a repeat of the 1986 World Cup final whenArgentina prevailed in the Azteca in Mexico City. It will give Messi the opportunity to match the Maradona, who was tightly marked by the West Germans but still managed to sweep that pass through for Jorge Burruchaga to beat Harald Schumacher and win the trophy. Messi was closely shadowed by the Dutch and he faces a huge task to unravel Germany’s defence.
It is also a repeat of the climax of Italia 90 when this time the Germans won with a late penalty kick from Andreas Brehme in Rome. Pope Francis will have been watching on with interest, supporting his native Argentina as they held their nerve in penalties.
Holland had to look to Jasper Cillessen as their keeper for the shoot-out as Louis van Gaal had used up all his subs so was unable to bring on Tim Krul, who had thwarted Costa Rica in the quarter-finals. But this was all about Argentina’s keeper, about Sergio Romero, who had played under Van Gaal at AZ Alkmaar.
It was surprising seeing a defender, Ron Vlaar, walking up to take Holland’s first penalty. Vlaar had been terrific all game, making key interceptions, but it was still a shock with more technical players available. Romero promptly saved from the Aston Villa centre-half and the pressure was heaped on Holland.
Cillessen tried to put Messi off but the little genius stayed calm, and swept his penalty home. Arjen Robben stepped forward, and coolly slotted his kick low to Romero’s left. Ezequiel Garay took a long run-up and slammed his penalty in, keeping the pressure on the Dutch.
Next up was Wesley Sneijder, whose right-footed shot was saved by Romero as the Argentina fans went crazy with delight. Their joy was unconfined when Sergio Aguero stroked his kick in. Dirk Kuyt had to score and he did, sending Romero the wrong way. But then came Maxi Rodriguez, formerly of Liverpool, converting the decisive kick. A broad smile spread across Messi’s face.
When Messi’s name was read out almost three hours earlier, Argentinian cheers drowned out mock Dutch boos. Yet one of Messi’s first acts was to foul Nigel De Jong, slightly against the natural order. With the Dutch defensive and organised, Messi was faced with a difficult task to escape the orange maze.
Few of the stars got going before the break. Robin Van Persie and Robben were disappointing, failing to elude Argentinian defenders who had shown real signs of improvement as the World Cup has progressed and have now not been breached for 373 minutes.
Far from the highs of the other semi-final Belo Horizonte, this was low key. The game shifted listlessly from end to end. Argentina were marginally the brighter. “Messi, Messi” chorused the fans in blue and white as their idol addressed a free-kick. Messi struck the ball low and hard, sending it curling round the wall but it was superbly caught by Cillessen, diving to his right.
Both sets of supporters sought to lift their players. The Argentinians leapt up and down, waving scarves, flags and banners. The Dutch formed splashes of orange all around Arena Corinthians. There were some Brazilians in attendance, but still subdued after Belo Horizonte.
The neatest touch of the half came from a keeper, Cillessen, who dummied Gonzalo Higuain with a body swerve that Johan Cruyff would have been proud of. After a couple of seconds, and with the ball safely transferred forward, Cillessen glanced back at Higuain, who stared back, unimpressed.
Messi was finding little pockets of space but was also finding Dutch in close company. De Jong was never further than a few yards away. Sneijder tracked him. So did Daley Blind, and most painfully Bruno Martins Indi, who deliberately baulked the No 10 twice and was booked.
The game was meandering. Robben and Van Persie were failing to link up.
Argentina kept trying to break through the Dutch defence but found Vlaar indomitable. Rather unrecognisable from his Aston Villa self, Vlaar dispossessed Higuain but then conceded a free-kick with a challenge on the Argentinian No 9 which had something of the line-backer about it.
Messi continued to be stopped through fair means and foul, such as a body-check from Clasie. As Messi recovered, Perez flew down the right, drilling a cross towards the near-post but Higuain could find only the side-netting.
Higuain and Enzo Perez were then taken off for Sergio Aguero and Rodrigo Palacio. Cillessen was almost caught out by a Marcos Rojo long-ranger. Robben almost prevented extra time with a driving run down the inside-left channel. He could have shot earlier but took the extra touch, allowing Javier Mascherano to stretch out a leg and divert his shot.
During extra time, Robben went on one of those runs but ran down a cul de sac. He then cut in from the right, wrong-footing Rojo and bringing a low save from Romero. Almost 100 minutes and the Dutch had their first shot on target.
Argentina, missing the creativity of the injured Angel Di Maria, formed another huddle, taking more words of inspiration from Alejandro Sabella at the midway point of extra time. Cillessen then turned Aguero as confidently as he had guided the ball past Higuain. Palacio could have won it when clear through but his header was too weak and Cillessen caught the ball easily. Messi then raced away from Vlaar and Kuyt, lifting in a cross that Rodriguez wasted, shooting straight at Cillessen. He made no mistake with his penalty, giving Messi, Argentina and their huge hordes of fans their final dream. In Brazil’s backyard.