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.
Jul 5, 2015, 8:51 PM EDT
Carli Lloyd’s hat trick and the United States’ win smashed just about every record in a huge win over Japan in the Women’s World Cup final.
Jul 5, 2015, 8:02 PM EDT
Wow. Just wow.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT
Watch Lloyd score three times, as U.S. raced into a 4-0 lead inside the first 20 minutes.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:16 PM EDT
Inter Milan released a statement defending itself as Fiorentina vice president Paolo Panerai criticized his rival in the midst of Mohamed Salah’s transfer situation.
Jul 5, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT
Watch the Women’s World Cup final live online. Kickoff at 7 p.m. ET.
Jul 5, 2015, 4:45 PM EDT
After having his contract terminated for violence with match security, Emir Spahic will play for Hamburger SV next season.
Jul 5, 2015, 4:03 PM EDT
Despite Sergio Ramos’ transfer being heavily linked to Manchester United, rival Andres Iniesta believes the defender is going nowhere.
Jul 5, 2015, 3:10 PM EDT
The Indian Super League continues to bring in the big names.
Jul 5, 2015, 2:22 PM EDT
After three stints managing the Super Eagles, Stephen Keshi is out once again.
Jul 5, 2015, 1:35 PM EDT
The U.S. defense has been unbreakable, and Japan loves to keep the ball. Something has to give in the final.
Jul 5, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT
After making some tactical changes at the break, Micronesia held Fiji to just 17 second half goals.
Jul 5, 2015, 12:21 PM EDT
After another brutal loss in a major tournament final, Argentina’s Javier Mascherano couldn’t explain what went wrong.
Jul 5, 2015, 11:25 AM EDT
Catch up on all six of Saturday night’s MLS matches, right here.
Jul 5, 2015, 10:27 AM EDT
It may be Sunday, but transfer gossip doesn’t take weekends off.
Jul 5, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT
At 32 years of age, Sampson impressed many by leading England to a third-place finish in the Women’s World Cup.
Jul 5, 2015, 8:34 AM EDT
Sepp’s not going down without a fight, now bringing major political leaders into the mix.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:44 AM EDT
On the Fourth of July, there were fireworks all across Major League Soccer.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:40 AM EDT
Both countries hope that this final will help bring further attention to the women’s game.
Jul 5, 2015, 4:51 AM EDT
Olympic gold medals are great, but this group wants a World Cup title.
Jul 4, 2015, 11:23 PM EDT
On a day where Laura Bassett showed great resolve, England won over many neutrals.
- United States wins third Women’s World Cup title, beats Japan on record-smashing day 1
- VIDEO: Watch every goal as USA lead Japan 4-1 in crazy first half of World Cup final 1
- VIDEO: Lloyd seals amazing 16 minute hat trick with wonder goal from halfway 2
- Sunday’s Transfer Rumor Roundup: Manchester City ready to spend, Spurs agree for Alderweireld 0
- Sepp Blatter claims French and German presidents influenced World Cup voters 1
- United States, Japan meet in Women’s World Cup final with high hopes back home 2