8 July 2014 14:38
Netherlands’ FIFA World Cup semi-final with Argentina could hinge on the performances of their respective left-footed talismen.
Both Arjen Robben and Lionel Messi have been influential in guiding their teams to the last-four stage, but only one can emerge victorious in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.
For Barcelona superstar Messi, who has enjoyed a trophy-laden club career, a World Cup semi-final represents unchartered territory, while his Dutch counterpart was victorious at the same stage in South Africa four years ago.
That World Cup ultimately ended in bitter disappointment for Robben and Netherlands, as Messi’s club-mate Andres Iniesta struck the decisive blow for Spain in the final.
The extra-time defeat in Johannesburg maintained Netherlands’ losing run in finals, after the nation were also defeated in the1974 and 1978 showpieces.
The latter of those was against Argentina – also after extra-time – as two goals from Mario Kempes condemned them to a 3-1 reverse in front of a partisan Buenos Aires crowd.
Netherlands gained a measure of revenge in France 20 years later, in a game made memorable for Dennis Bergkamp’s sumptuous control and finish to seal a 2-1 success in the last minute of their quarter-final in France.
To be considered among the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona in the footballing pantheon, it has often been suggested that Messi needs to deliver on the world stage – and the 27-year-old has certainly done that in Brazil.
His four goals in the group stage helped Argentina to a 100 per cent record, and his two assists set up the winning strikes in both the second-round and quarter-final matches against Switzerland and Belgium respectively.
Robben, meanwhile, has been the focal point of much of Netherlands’ attacking play, netting three times as they topped Group B while continuing to terrorise opponents with his trademark darting runs inside off the right wing.
With Robin van Persie yet to score in knockout football at a major international tournament, the goalscoring burden may yet fall again on Robben’s shoulders.
Louis van Gaal, widely lauded for his introduction of Tim Krul for the penalty shoot-out win over Costa Rica in the last eight, has doubts over the fitness of Ron Vlaar (knee) and Leroy Fer (hamstring), while Nigel de Jong has been ruled out of the remainder of the tournament with a groin strain.
Argentina, meanwhile, will be without Angel Di Maria, who sustained a thigh injury in the win over Belgium, although Sergio Aguero could return after missing the last two matches with a similar issue.