Argentina edged past the Netherlands to reach the World Cup semi-finals and keep Lionel Messi’s hopes of a crowning glory alive, but only after throwing away a 2-0 lead and winning a penalty shootout.
Messi got the ball rolling in the shootout, while Emiliano Martinez saved the first two Dutch penalties. Enzo Fernandez missed the chance to win it with his effort but that opportunity came back around for Lautaro Martinez to send La Albiceleste through.
Messi and Nahuel Molina had given Argentina their lead in normal time, only to see a remarkable late Netherlands comeback spearheaded by Wout Weghorst off the bench.
Although two of the most popular and talented teams at this tournament, it was a very cagey start to the game from both sides, with neither creating anything at all of note in the opening 20 minutes. With half an hour played, only shots well off target from Messi and Steven Bergwijn were of note.
When the first shot on target did come, it was a team effort from Rodrigo de Paul and an easy save for cult hero Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert. But it seemed to mark a change in the game nonetheless because Molina’s opener came almost straight after.
The goal was made by Messi, who picked the ball up in midfield, suddenly changed his pace and then picked a through pass to Molina that defied logic as to how he’d seen the run from the wing-back. The Atletico Madrid player just instinctively poked it over the onrushing Noppert.
The remainder of the first half threatened to get a little tetchy as tempers flared and yellow cards were dished out at will by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, even to Weghorst on the bench.
Louis van Gaal was aware enough that things weren’t working for his team in the first half – Frenkie de Jong needed to be much further up the pitch to make the right impact – that he made a double change at half-time to try and get it moving.
Aside from his stunning assist, Messi’s impact on the game and on Argentina’s hopes at this World Cup was summed up in a passage of play just after the hour mark. He jostled for the ball in his own half, drove forward before receiving it back and then winning a free-kick off a frustrated Virgil van Dijk. The 35-year-old struck the set-piece himself and rippled the roof of the net as it just missed.
A disappointing Dutch side still weren’t creating much and Argentina got the breathing room that they were craving with around 20 minutes to go. Denzel Dumfries was suckered into sweeping the legs of advancing wing-back Marcos Acuna and it was left to Messi to whip the ball into the side netting well beyond the reach of the motionless Noppert.
From that point it looked as though La Albiceleste would cruise through to the semi-finals, but Van Gaal and the Netherlands had other ideas when he sent the giant Weghorst on to join fellow sub and similar target man Luuk de Jong already on the pitch.
Weghorst set up the late Dutch onslaught after connecting with a wonderful Steven Berghuis cross, powering a low header past Martinez. Plenty of fans inside the stadium then thought there had been a quickfire equaliser when an effort was thrashed into the side netting.
As Argentina suddenly looked to cling on and the Dutch route-one game bypassed Messi completely, tempers again flared as substitute Leandro Paredes booted the ball in the direction the Netherlands bench. Cue a melee as Dutch subs piled onto the pitch and pushing and shoving ensued.
The last gasp equaliser to force extra-time was an incredible piece of dead ball ingenuity. Teun Koopmeiners shaped to lash a free-kick at goal, but instead played a deft pass to Weghorst by the side of the defensive wall. Argentina weren’t expecting it and couldn’t react in time to his finish.
The final whistle at the end of the 90 sparked more flare-ups at the side of the pitch. Yet the first period of extra-time was then very flat from both sides, perhaps suddenly more concerned about not losing than keep pushing for the win.
Argentina finished the stronger of the sides in extra-time, with Van Dijk making a crucial late block to deny Lautaro Martinez and then Enzo Fernandez almost beating Noppert unconventionally after his shot was deflected agonisingly over the cross bar. Martinez also forced Noppert into a save in the dying moments, while Fernandez cracked one off the base of the post.
Van Dijk and Berghuis both had penalties saved by Martinez in the shootout, with Messi, Paredes and Gonzalo Montiel all converting for Argentina. Koopmeiners and Weghorst each scored theirs. After Fernandez missed the chance to win it, Luuk de Jong kept Netherlands alive, before Lautaro Martinez calmly won it with the last kick.
GK: Andries Noppert – 6/10 – Beaten twice but made a few saves towards the end of extra-time
CB: Jurrien Timber – 6/10 – Took a needless yellow card when he shoved Acuna after play had already stopped. Committed a lot of fouls overall.
CB: Virgil van Dijk (c) – 7/10 – Made a big block in extra-time.
CB: Nathan Ake – 7/10 – Moved out to left-back in the second half and did it justice.
RWB: Denzel Dumfries – 5/10 – Spent a lot of time playing high up the pitch, but couldn’t repeat his heroics of the last 16. Gave away what proved to be the decisive penalty.
CM: Marten de Roon – 4/10 – Didn’t really imprint himself on the game and was disappointing in the tackle. Didn’t return for the second half.
CM: Frenkie de Jong – 5/10 – Kept having to come deep to try and get on the ball. Saw a lot of it and passed accurately but it didn’t exactly influence the game in a positive way for his team.
LWB: Daley Blind – 5/10 – Couldn’t keep up with Molina when the breakthough goal came.
AM: Cody Gakpo – 6/10 – Not involved much for most of the initial 90 minutes and a lot of what he did try didn’t work. Sparked into life towards the very end or normal time.
ST: Steven Bergwijn – 4/10 – Didn’t see much of the ball and had one shot that went well wide before being subbed off at half-time.
ST: Memphis Depay – 5/10 – Not his day in the end. Off the pitch before the fightback began.
Teun Koopmeiners (46′ for De Roon) – 8/10
Steven Berghuis (46′ for Bergwijn) – 7/10
Luuk de Jong (65′ for Blind) – 6/10
Wout Weghorst (78′ for Depay) – 8/10
Noa Lang (113′ for Gakpo) – 6/10
Louis van Gaal – 9/10 – Ignoring the fact that his team initially went 2-0 down, he recognised where his team weren’t getting it right, made changes and switched focus to balls into the box. The late equaliser was also clearly something that had been worked on in training.
GK: Emiliano Martinez – 7/10 – Might have expected to do better with the Dutch goal. His hands were close enough to it. Hadn’t been tested before that but made himself a shootout hero.
CB: Cristian Romero – 6/10 – Defended well and the Dutch didn’t get a sniff from him when he was on the pitch.
CB: Nicolas Otamendi – 6/10 – Repelled the high balls into the box, despite lacking height compared to the Dutch giants. But that wasn’t how the 101st minute equaliser came.
CB: Lisandro Martinez – 6/10 – Like Otamendi, but more so.
RWB: Nahuel Molina – 8/10 – Often looked keen to get forward and was rewarded when Messi somehow saw his surging run forward.
CM: Rodrigo de Paul – 6/10 – Gave a decent performance in the middle but forced off slightly prematurely with an injury problem.
CM: Enzo Fernandez – 6/10 – Not enough opportunity to do things with the ball in meaningful areas until changes in the second half. Made much more impact in extra-time.
CM: Alexis Mac Allister – 6/10 – Battled hard and did both sides of the game in midfield.
LWB: Marcos Acuna – 8/10 – Yellow carded for a nasty challenge on Dumfries and got in Dutch faces. But also gave a top performance and the game was won at the moment he went off.
ST: Lionel Messi (c) – 8/10 – Argentina’s switch of system didn’t seem to suit him at first, but he changed the game in an instant 35 minutes in when he made Molina’s goal. Scored a penalty too, yet when Netherlands went long ball later on, he disappeared from the game.
ST: Julian Alvarez – 6/10 – Put in a hard shift without the glory this time.
Leandro Paredes (66′ for De Paul) – 6/10
Nicolas Tagliafico (78′ for Acuna) – 5/10
German Pezzella (78′ for Romero) – 5/10
Lautaro Martinez (82′ for Alvarez) – 7/10
Gonzalo Montiel (106′ for Molina) – 6/10
Angel Di Maria (112′ for Li. Martinez) – 7/10
Lionel Scaloni – 6/10 – His wing-back really did a great job in deciding this game, but one questions how much impact the boss actually has when Messi is so decisive.