Friday 13 December 2019

Robben sees history repeating itself as Messi nears destiny

Argentina's goalkeeper Sergio Romero reacts after saving a goal attempt from Ron Vlaar of the Netherlands during a penalty shoot-out during their 2014 World Cup semi-finals at the Corinthians arena in Sao Paulo
Argentina's goalkeeper Sergio Romero reacts after saving a goal attempt from Ron Vlaar of the Netherlands during a penalty shoot-out during their 2014 World Cup semi-finals at the Corinthians arena in Sao Paulo
Lionel Messi and Lucas Biglia of Argentina celebrate defeating the Netherlands in a shootout during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Paulo
Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates defeating the Netherlands in a shootout during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Paulo
Goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen of the Netherlands reacts after being defeated by Argentina in a penalty shootout as Argentina celebrates during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Paulo
Argentina full-back Pablo Zabaleta prevents Arjen Robben getting a cross in for the Netherlands during the World Cup semi-final in Sao Paulo. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Netherlands Klaas-Jan Huntelaar gets a tackle in on Javier Mascherano - a challenge for which he received a booking - during the World Cup semi-final in Sao Paulo. Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain turns away from Netherlands defender Bruno Martins Indi during the World Cup semi-final in Sao Paulo. Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Argentina captain Lionel Messi is challenged by Netherlands pair Jordy Clasie (left) and Georginio Wijnaldum of the during the World Cup semi-final in Sao Paulo. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Netherlands' Robin van Persie shows his frustration late in the game during the FIFA World Cup Semi Final at the Arena de Sao Paulo
Netherlands' Robin van Persie walks past manager Louis van Gaal (left) as he is substituted during the FIFA World Cup Semi Final at the Arena de Sao Paulo
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal reacts as Robin van Persie (rear C) and goalkeeper Tim Krul (rear R) are seen on the bench during extra time in their 2014 World Cup semi-finals against Argentina at the Corinthians arena in Sao Paulo
Sergio Romero of Argentina saves the penalty kick of Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands (not pictured) in a shootout during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Paulo
Argentina's goalkeeper Sergio Romero saves a penalty kick by Ron Vlaar of the Netherlands during the penalty shootout in their 2014 World Cup semi-finals at the Corinthians arena in Sao Paulo
Netherlands' national soccer players react as teammate Ron Vlaar misses an opportunity to score a goal against Argentina during a penalty shoot-out at their 2014 World Cup semi-finals at the Corinthians arena in Sao Paulo
Lionel Messi, Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis, Marcos Rojo, Lucas Biglia, Javier Mascherano, Rodrigo Palacio and Ezequiel Garay of Argentina celebrate defeating the Netherlands in a shootout during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Paulo
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

For the noisy fans of Argentina, the song of the tournament is moving closer to reality. Lionel Messi will be at the Maracana on Sunday, just one game away from collecting the World Cup in Brazil's back yard.

This was the night, however, where he had to get by with a little from his friends. When the superstar strode up to convert La Seleccion's first penalty of the tense shoot-out, his side already had the upper hand thanks to the first of two Sergio Romero stops.

It paved the way for Maxi Rodriguez to dispatch the winner. Messi sprinted to join with the celebrations.

At the centre circle, Arjen Robben was suffering a dramatic contrast in emotions. He could have broken with his usual pattern by actually making a lot of friends if his side had pulled this one off. The neutrals in Sao Paulo craved Dutch progression to keep their neighbours quiet, but Robben was unable to deliver that promise.

The Bayern Munich star already had his shot at glory in 2010 when he squandered the opportunity to put his country ahead at a crucial time in their showdown with Spain.

Defeat here means he's unlikely to get another chance to put that right. It's a crying shame for a genuine top-level performer but, outside his homeland, you won't find too many rushing to offer their sympathy.

In his own way, he's a phenomenon. Ten years ago, he joined Chelsea where he dovetailed with Damien Duff in providing the width and pace in their charge to a Premier League title.

He's flourished with age, defying the regular perception of a flying winger by maintaining his speed into his 30s, and has a substantial medal haul built around league wins in four different countries and an integral role in Bayern Munich's 2013 Champions League triumph.

There is every chance though, outside Holland anyway, that a montage of his career highlights would be peppered with controversial examples of his propensity towards theatrics.

“There has been a lot of talking about diving and actually I'm tired of this bulls**t,” he'd complained after the penalty shootout win over Costa Rica in the quarter-finals. “I get kicked from all sides but luckily I am still fit.”

Within the Dutch group, he retains huge respect, a fact illustrated by the sideline pictures before extra-time in the Salvador showdown with the Costa Ricans which showed Louis van Gaal stepping back and allowing Robben to deliver a pep-talk to the players. This drab affair belonged in the tactical category and it was always going to revolve around containing Messi and Robben, the two most important pieces on the chess board.

Messi was shackled by Nigel de Jong from the first minute, and quickly found that the experienced AC Milan man didn't travel too far without an accomplice.

Robben, meanwhile was often Holland's forward most player, but that was because he was engaged in the business of pressing with Robin van Persie taking a step back when necessary.

Argentina's refusal to commit too many bodies meant he was deprived of the space to be effective on the counter. His anonymity on the ball was summed up by the fact that he attempted just one pass before the break. Like Messi, he was waiting for the legs of lesser mortals to tire as the minutes ticked past. It wasn't that straightforward though.

De Jong, who had come back from injury ahead of schedule, only lasted an hour which meant that the fresh legs of Jordi Clasie gave fresh life to the Oranje defensive midfield department.

REARGUARD

When Messi did get a run at the Dutch rearguard, Ron Vlaar intervened, belying his status as an Aston Villa employee.

Robben's response was a rapid advance that was headed off at the pass by the covering Lucas Biglia, an addition that has strengthened Alejandro Sabella's security operation.

Sergio Aguero's arrival gave Messi fresh company, but all they could share was frustration, an emotion that was prevalent around the ground when the four-time Ballon D'or winner skied a straightforward set piece high and wide over a crowded box of perplexed players. The coronation looked to be in serious jeopardy.

He needed his defensive colleagues to be as sturdy as his adversaries, but there were ominous signs in the final minutes of regulation time as the Argentina rearguard began to creak.

Robben pounced on the weakness and could have torn up the script with a last minute burst he wasted with a superfluous touch that allowed the alert Mascherano to throw a leg in the way.

The battery power of Van Gaal's main man remained constant as the extra half-hour took its toll, as he drifted into areas that forced blue and white shirts to commit. As a consequence, it gave referee Cuneyt Cakir a few more decisions to make, with Robben convinced he was getting the raw end of the deal, waving his arms around as a flimsy Argentine tug on his jersey went unpunished.

On this occasion, his complaints fell on deaf ears. Suddenly, there were shades of Johannesburg all over again.

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