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 22, 2014, 10:28 AM EDT
After 10 years with the club, Gourlay has stepped down.
Oct 22, 2014, 9:20 AM EDT
The MLS side was eliminated from group stage play on an away goals tiebreaker as Honduran side Olimpia goes through.
Oct 22, 2014, 8:42 AM EDT
Norwich striker Cameron Jerome complained to Mark Clattenburg that a Leeds player was racially abusing him, and the matter is being investigated.
Oct 22, 2014, 7:46 AM EDT
Arsenal’s energetic German winger loves the club, but admitted he can’t sit on the bench forever.
Oct 21, 2014, 11:10 PM EDT
“On behalf of the club, I would like to apologise to the QPR supporters for the embarrassment this has caused,” Fernandes wrote.
Oct 21, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT
Who scored the best goal in Tuesday’s Champions League action?
Oct 21, 2014, 9:00 PM EDT
Oct 21, 2014, 8:15 PM EDT
One hopes Agudelo’s story will resonate with Jurgen Klinsmann.
Oct 21, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
“It might be something I regret down the line for not challenging myself,” said Gerrard.
Oct 21, 2014, 5:50 PM EDT
The players will shell out over $90,000 to cover the cost of the traveling fans.
Oct 21, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
40 goals were scored in eight games on Tuesday, as Groups E-H exploded into life.
Oct 21, 2014, 5:01 PM EDT
A sensational ending to a sensational performance by Hazard and Chelsea as a whole.
Oct 21, 2014, 4:35 PM EDT
When Bayern Munich are firing on all cylinders, they are scary, scary sight.
Oct 21, 2014, 3:49 PM EDT
Unlucky for Maribor. Comfortable for Chelsea.
Oct 21, 2014, 3:42 PM EDT
Groups E-H are in action on Wednesday in Europe as eight games take place, and there are some gaudy score lines after just 45 minutes.
Oct 21, 2014, 3:36 PM EDT
It’s an absolute shellacking going into half-time with Bayern giving a masterclass display in Roma.
Oct 21, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
It’s the right move for Philly, especially given the man management shown by Curtin.
Oct 21, 2014, 2:48 PM EDT
Pellegrini defiant despite City blowing a 2-0 lead in Moscow.
Oct 21, 2014, 2:07 PM EDT
Missing Koscielny is a far bigger blow than having to start a 22-year-old, though.
Oct 21, 2014, 2:01 PM EDT
City chuck away 2-0 lead in Russian capital, as UCL hopes hang in the balance.
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