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 1, 2014, 8:45 PM EDT
Alves is ready to move to the Premier League. So what clubs might he fit in?
Oct 1, 2014, 7:58 PM EDT
A great deal for the Revs, who will be able to add Sporting players on loan much like NYCFC can add Manchester City players.
Oct 1, 2014, 7:02 PM EDT
Maradona pledged his support for the Palestinian cause back in 2012.
Oct 1, 2014, 6:14 PM EDT
Liverpool’s struggles continue. Here’s three things we learned as they remain winless in four.
Oct 1, 2014, 5:51 PM EDT
Take in a top-flight football match anywhere in Turkey and you’ll be hard-pressed not to see at least a few flares among the fans.
Oct 1, 2014, 5:11 PM EDT
After eight games on Wednesday, here’s what happened around Europe.
Oct 1, 2014, 4:53 PM EDT
The Gunners provided one of their most stunning performances of the season on Wednesday, dismantling Group D opponents Galatasaray 4-1.
Oct 1, 2014, 4:42 PM EDT
Lackluster Liverpool now level on points with Basel, face Real Madrid in next two matches.
Oct 1, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT
“He scores when he wants. He scores when he wants. Danny Welbeck, he scores when he wants.”
Oct 1, 2014, 3:37 PM EDT
A first-half brace from Danny Welbeck and a third from Alexis Sanchez handed Arsenal some breathing room against Galatasaray.
Oct 1, 2014, 3:37 PM EDT
Arsenal are flying, so too are Leverkusen. Check out all the half time scores, here.
Oct 1, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT
The Gunners opened the Champions League group stage in disappointing form, losing 2-0 to BVB.
Oct 1, 2014, 2:24 PM EDT
Can the Reds make it two wins from two in the Champions League?
Oct 1, 2014, 1:56 PM EDT
Zenit, Monaco remain top of Group C after a dour draw in Saint Petersburg.
Oct 1, 2014, 1:38 PM EDT
Thierry Henry may be on his way out of New York City as turmoil at the top could drive him out.
Oct 1, 2014, 1:26 PM EDT
The two sides had some internet fun after yesterday’s 1-1 Champions League draw.
Oct 1, 2014, 12:20 PM EDT
The former president of CONMEBOL told Uruguayan TV that Suarez could return earlier than expected.
Oct 1, 2014, 11:40 AM EDT
That Wayne Rooney implosion? You’re gonna need Rog and Davo to break it down.
Oct 1, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT
The US fringe player picked a terrible time to be injured, with the international break on the horizon.
Oct 1, 2014, 10:28 AM EDT
With Zelalem weaving through defenders on the Arsenal U-19 team, it’s hard not to get antsy about the 17-year-old possibly playing for the United States.
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