Jul 9, 2014, 9:13 PM EDT
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.
Oct 26, 2014, 12:39 AM EDT
The Vancouver Whitecaps did themselves well to clinch a late playoff birth, besting the Colorado Rapids, 1-0.
Oct 25, 2014, 11:44 PM EDT
The Timbers’ postseason aspirations are hanging in the balance, but this 2-0 win over FC Dallas has certainly put them in a nice spot.
Oct 25, 2014, 10:31 PM EDT
Final: New England Revolution 1, Toronto FC 0
Oct 25, 2014, 9:49 PM EDT
AS Roma defender Ashley Cole has drawn the interest of MLS teams once again.
Oct 25, 2014, 8:48 PM EDT
Cristiano Ronaldo praises manager Louis van Gaal and is convinced that the 63-year-old will lead Manchester United to its former glory.
Oct 25, 2014, 7:23 PM EDT
Short recap and highlights of Saturday’s Round 9 Premier League matches.
Oct 25, 2014, 7:08 PM EDT
With three games on the slate, here’s what you can look forward to on Sunday.
Oct 25, 2014, 6:18 PM EDT
Final: Montreal Impact 1, D.C. United 1
Oct 25, 2014, 5:23 PM EDT
The Chicago Fire are seeking to bolster the strength of their roster, examining the possible signing of ex-Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Jaime O’Hara.
Oct 25, 2014, 4:55 PM EDT
A sleepy game for over an hour, Seattle and L.A. used the last hour to stage a contest worthy of a trophy-winning event.
Oct 25, 2014, 4:29 PM EDT
Pique speaks of his handball in Barcelona’s 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid: “It was unintentional.”
Oct 25, 2014, 3:47 PM EDT
The L.A. Galaxy and Seattle Sounders are scoreless through 45 minutes at CenturyLink in Washington.
Oct 25, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
Leeds United have fired manager Darko Milanic after only 32 days leading the squad.
Oct 25, 2014, 2:59 PM EDT
Several fun games whet the appetite for a massive top of table Sunday tilt between Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach.
Oct 25, 2014, 2:29 PM EDT
With six games on Saturday in the PL, here’s what happened.
Oct 25, 2014, 2:20 PM EDT
Wilfried Bony scored both goals for Swans, 2-0, who cruised to the win against the suddenly-struggling Foxes.
Oct 25, 2014, 2:07 PM EDT
Will the Sounders handle the Galaxy and expectations to clinch home-field throughout the playoffs?
Oct 25, 2014, 1:54 PM EDT
“Maybe they [Stoke] created two possibilities, not chances and that’s a great team effort,” Koeman said of his Saints.
Oct 25, 2014, 1:47 PM EDT
Despite going behind earlier, Real came roaring back to win the first El Clasico of 2014-15.
Oct 25, 2014, 1:28 PM EDT
Watch and enjoy, then follow the second half live on NBC and online via Live Extra.
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