SAO PAULO, Brazil — With rain falling and the entire stadium standing, the ticket to the World Cup title game came down to a distance of 12 yards and a series of guesses: Left or right? High or low? The Netherlands or Argentina? This time, the Dutch squad had no theatrics or surprises up its sleeve. There would be no substitutions, no miracles and, for the Netherlands, no return to the World Cup finale.
After 120 minutes of scoreless soccer in Wednesday’s semifinal, Argentina knocked in four penalty kicks to the Netherlands’ two, earning a spot in Sunday’s championship against Germany. Argentina has won all six of its games in this tournament by a combined score of 8-3 and knows it could be 90 minutes away from hoisting the World Cup championship trophy for the first time in 28 years.
“I don’t know what we’ve crossed now, but we’ve made it to the end,” Argentina Coach Alejandro Sabella said. “It’s a line of no return.”
Wednesday’s highly anticipated match lacked the thrills — not to mention the scoring — of the previous day’s semifinal, Germany’s 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in Belo Horizonte.
When 30 minutes of extra time expired and the scoring drought remained unbroken, the two sides lined up for penalty kicks. Just five days earlier in his team’s quarterfinal match against Costa Rica, Netherlands Coach Louis van Gaal surprised many by swapping goalkeepers before penalty kicks — a move that proved to be prescient and earned the Dutch a spot in the semis. But that option wasn’t available to him Wednesday because he had already used all his substitutes before time expired.
“If I’d had the opportunity to substitute, yes, I would have done it,” van Gaal said later.
The coach was all too familiar with the other team’s goalkeeper, too. He had coached Sergio Romero when the Argentine was just embarking on a pro career in 2007 with the Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, where van Gaal was coaching at the time.
“Of course, I taught Romero how to stop penalties,” van Gaal joked later.
In fact, Romero, 27, had studied a binder with details on each player’s shot history and tendencies. The energetic goalkeeper was more than ready as the Netherlands lined up its first shot. Twelve yards away, Ron Vlaar approached the ball. He went right, and Romero guessed right — a save.
Then Argentina’s star Lionel Messi went left, and the Netherlands’ Jasper Cillessen guessed wrong. The advantage tipped to Argentina, and Arena De Sao Paulo shook.
Arjen Robben managed to sneak one in for the Dutch, but Ezequiel Garay matched for Argentina. Once the Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder kicked the ball into Romero’s outstretched hands and the Argentine goalkeeper started to pound his chest, the night suddenly started to come into focus: After 120 minutes of soccer, much of it taking place far from either goal, Argentina had a date for this Sunday afternoon at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, will face Brazil on Saturday in Brasilia in the tournament’s third-place match. The Dutch squad was aiming for a repeat trip to the World Cup title match. It lost the 2010 championship to Spain, 1-0, and entered this year’s tournament with more modest expectations.
“It’s the most terrible scenario to lose with penalties,” van Gaal said. “At the very least, we were the equal team in the match, if not the better team. So that, of course, is a big disappointment.”
Though his Argentine squad is Rio-bound and not prepping for a hollow third-place match, Sabella also said Wednesday’s semifinal felt like a draw.
“If it had been the other way around, I would have said the same thing,” he said.
Both teams were tactical and cautious, relying on crisp midfield passing and tight defense — but barely sniffing the net. The big names struggled to make even the smallest of contributions. For Argentina, Messi was a threat because he was on the field and wearing cleats, though Cillessen probably didn’t notice much.
And the Netherlands’ Robben and Robin van Persie also had minimal offensive impact. In fact, none of the Dutch players did until the final minutes of regulation and extra time. Van Persie and Robben entered the game with three goals apiece in this tournament. Van Persie didn’t finish it, however. For the second time this tournament, van Gaal gave him an early hook.
Van Persie missed most of the previous day’s practice with a stomach ailment, and van Gaal said his captain was “exhausted.” It meant van Persie, one of the game’s best scorers, was unavailable when the game went to penalty kicks.
“We didn’t create very much. In all the other matches, we created so many more opportunities than today,” van Gaal said. “That says something about the Argentinian team, but it also says something about our organization because Argentina didn’t create very many opportunities, if any.”
Argentina is aiming for its third World Cup title. Led by Diego Maradona, the Argentines topped West Germany, 3-2, in the 1986 final in Mexico City. Four years later, in their most recent appearance in a World Cup final, they lost to Germany, 1–0, on a penalty kick in the 85th minute.
“I have great admiration for two countries from a football point of view, Brazil and Germany,” Sabella said. “I believe that Germany throughout its entire history, they have always shown physical might, tactical prowess, mental force. They’ve always had, particularly when they make history, a certain South American touch.”
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