Jul 9, 2014, 9:13 PM EST
It was, in the purest sense, a match neither side wanted to lose.
Holland and Argentina, both within a sniff of the World Cup final, had clear defensive objectives heading into their semifinal clash on Wednesday night.
Argentina’s objective: prevent Arjen Robben from being Arjen Robben.
Holland’s objective: prevent Lionel Messi from being Lionel Messi.
Ultimately, both game-plans ended in success as the two stars were prevented from scoring during regulation and extra time. But whereas both found it difficult to get into the match, it was Robben who shook off the cobwebs to become the danger man everyone has grown to fear.
After a first-half where Javier Mascherano, Enzo Perez, Martin Demichelis and Marcos Rojo beat, battered and double-teamed Robben out of the match, the second-half saw the Dutch wonder assess his situation and make changes to find the ball. With Jordy Claise on for Nigel de Jong, the Dutch began spraying balls out wide and it clicked for Robben: get out of the middle and demand the ball.
He went wide right, then wide left and then back to the right. He looked to dart up the wings as well as take his dribbles on the diagonal. Was it a notable performance for Robben? Not particularly. But he kept trying, kept searching for answers and eventually, was rewarded with two glorious chances to score in the 91st and 96th minutes only to be denied by the brilliant Javier Mascherano.
Messi had similar problems with worse results. He had to deal with guys like Bruno Martins Indi, who was all too happy to thump Messi any chance he had, and Nigel De Jong, who hasn’t seen a shin he doesn’t like to crack. La Pulga’s true nemesis, however, came in the form of a heaving Ron Vlaar who played out of his mind making a handful of sensational slide tackles on the Argentine.
The physical approach was nothing that Messi hadn’t seen in every match he’s played in over the last ten years. The problem was, he let it get to him. It wasn’t just infringements that prompted Messi to throw his hands in the air, it was legal tackles.
His frustration was palpable. And yet, instead of searching for solutions, Messi seemed content standing on the center-backs and simply drawing defenders away from the ball. Which is a fine technique in small doses but for prolonged periods of time? When you’re supposedly the best player in the world?
That’s not good enough.
When Messi did look to see more of the ball it was always through the middle of the pitch where he was promptly swarmed by defenders. And when that didn’t work, well, that was it. He rarely went wide. He didn’t look to change his link-up approach with Gonzalo Higuain or Sergio Aguero. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, that Messi was out of ideas.
Of course, Messi is never out of ideas. But the fact that he didn’t seem bothered to change his approach – to demand the ball, to ask for more from his teammates – was puzzling. How could his influence become so dulled on the one stage he had waited to so long to perform on?
Just 24 hours before the match news broke that a friend of Messi, Argentine journalist Jorge Lopez, had died in a car crash in Sao Paulo.
And just like that, the analysis of Messi’s anti-influence comes to a screeching halt.
So often we expect professional athletes to play through news and events that deeply affect their lives. Is it reasonable? No. But because the greats are just that, legends in human form, we expect them to rise up and conquer no matter what life throws at them.
On Wednesday, Messi faced difficult circumstances and was unable to be the hero we all expect him to be. Thankfully, fate – and four quality penalties – awarded him a second chance. And on Sunday he can prove the semifinal a flash in the pan by going on to stake his claim as the greatest footballer to ever walk the earth.
Feb 1, 2015, 6:52 PM EST
It was a day for Premier League players to shine as both Christian Atsu and Wilfried Bony tallied twice to help lead their sides into the final four.
Feb 1, 2015, 6:00 PM EST
The Saints’ boss believes Swansea City may have had a bit of luck on their side as they defeated Southampton 1-0.
Feb 1, 2015, 5:10 PM EST
Dennis Bergkamp became one of the most legendary Premier League players of all-time. Afonso Alves, not so much.
Feb 1, 2015, 4:20 PM EST
The Southampton man has shown sympathy for his fellow striker, saying sometimes you have to play a little dirty.
Feb 1, 2015, 3:33 PM EST
Young Aymeric Laporte is a name we may see in the Premier League, if not this winter than possibly over the summer.
Feb 1, 2015, 3:02 PM EST
“So you know football better than me?” Buckle up, this one’s painful. Just Zlatan being Zlatan.
Feb 1, 2015, 2:16 PM EST
The American hasn’t been as prolific as last year, but he proved important today as AZ moved to fifth in the Eredivisie.
Feb 1, 2015, 1:37 PM EST
The 23-year-old has a pair of goals today to bookend Ghana’s quarterfinal win, and the second was spectacular.
Feb 1, 2015, 12:53 PM EST
A stunner from Jonjo Shelvey saw Swansea surprisingly through after a lackluster first hour.
Feb 1, 2015, 12:08 PM EST
Arsene Wenger felt the scoreline may not have reflected the true nature of the game, and that the second goal was the key one in breaking down the visitors to the Emirates earlier today.
Feb 1, 2015, 11:22 AM EST
A pair of first-half goals saw Celtic through to the Scottish League Cup final over rivals Rangers.
Feb 1, 2015, 10:39 AM EST
Southampton can jump right back into the top three with a win against a struggling Swansea side at home.
Feb 1, 2015, 10:21 AM EST
Olivier Giroud opened things up inside 10 minutes and it was a sign of things to come as Aston Villa slumped to 612 minutes without a league goal.
Feb 1, 2015, 9:03 AM EST
His ACL tear in the past, now a fresh injury concern has shelved the Dutch midfielder.
Feb 1, 2015, 7:44 AM EST
Mesut Ozil starts in the middle in place of injured Alexis Sanchez as Aston Villa comes to the Emirates.
Jan 31, 2015, 11:20 PM EST
Diego Costa has again claimed his own innocence. And you know what? I believe that he believes he’s done nothing wrong.
Jan 31, 2015, 10:43 PM EST
Big Sam was quick to take the credit away from Liverpool and place the blame for Saturday’s loss on his own injury “crisis.”
Jan 31, 2015, 9:24 PM EST
Van Gaal remembers what happened last time his side led Leicester, and he learns his lessons the first time.
Jan 31, 2015, 8:30 PM EST
All of the day’s confirmed, officially official transfer dealings from Saturday, Jan. 31.
Jan 31, 2015, 7:27 PM EST
The actual games took a backseat to shenanigans as two of four semifinals places were booked on Saturday.
- Africa Cup of Nations roundup: Atsu and Bony lead Ghana, Ivory Coast into semis 0
- Transfer Rumor Roundup: Spurs to snatch Laporte, Liverpool in for Reid 1
- Southampton 0-1 Swansea: Shelvey snatches win with sensational late strike 0
- Arsenal 5-0 Aston Villa: Gunners torch hapless Villa with deadly counters 0
- Diego Costa maintains his innocence, says “I’ve not done anything wrong” 4
- DONE DEAL: Seydou Doumbia to Roma headlines quiet Saturday for transfers 0