2014 FIFA World Cup: What We Learned, Day 28
Argentina outlasted the Netherlands with a 4-2 penalty shootout victory to see it through to the World Cup finals against Germany on Sunday.
At the end of each day of action, our writers weigh in on what we learned from each of the day's matches.
Germany is blushing: Tuesday's semifinal was shocking given the absolute dominance of the German strikers. It was 5-0 at halftime and 7-1 before the whistle mercifully sounded in the first World Cup semifinal.
Wednesday's semifinal was the complete opposite of that train wreck as both Argentina and the Netherlands dug their defensive heels in, adamant that neither side would concede a goal. It only ended after keeper Sergio Romero made two tremendous saves in the shootout against the Dutch.
Argentina's defense was outstanding, shadowing Arjen Robben for the most part (Javier Mascherano probably saved his side's World Cup dreams with a sliding deflection late in the game) and Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder were mere shells of what we're used to. That sort of man-marking is exactly what doomed Brazil in yesterday's semifinal vs. Germany. There was so much space as Brazil's defenders practically allowed Thomas Muller and Sami Khedira to dribble right to the goal's edge. That won't happen on Sunday as Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis, Ezequiel Garay and Mascherano will hold a much tighter line and close gaps quicker than did the depleted Brazilians. (Side note: The only thing worse than seeing Brazil's team flounder like it did in front of its home fans would be to see Argentina lift the World Cup trophy). That may not happen because..
Messi was a non-factor: I'd be worried if I was Argentinian manager Alejandro Sabella because the Dutch gave the Germans a blueprint for how to defend the world's best player. There were so few counters that Messi rarely had any space, but that was also due, in large part, to the unglorified work of Nigel de Jong. The feisty midfielder, back from injury, trailed Messi throughout the neutral zone, and when he subbed off, it was Jordy Clasie's turn to hound him. Georginio Wijnaldum was often hovering just a few feet away as well. Van Persie and Sneijder offered their help when called upon, too. Messi's only attempt on goal was from a free kick that he blasted directly at the Dutch keeper. He's very much the focal point of Argentina's offense, especially with Gonzalo Higuain as a primary finisher (he was denied twice in today's game, though). The Germans will toss Mesut Ozil, Philipp Lahm and Toni Kroos at Messi to stifle his production, quite similar to how the Dutch did.
Germany is favored over Argentina in the finals: Based on Germany's dominance contrasted to Argentina's endurance, the former have to be considered favorites heading into the final. The Germans' passing was deliberate, their movements and chemistry were precise, and the onslaught was absolutely relentless in the first half of yesterday's game. Argentina has scored two goals in the knockout rounds and one was via the injured Angel di Maria. Germany has scored 10. Argentina has to take solace in the fact that it locked up the Dutch's threatening strikers, but Germany has so many more weapons with Miroslav Klose, Toni Kroos and Andre Schurrle to go along with Muller and company.
Not to mention, while Germany coasted its way to the finals, Argentina was locked in a defensive stalemate that proved physically taxing. Aside from the physical recovery time, Argentina must also assesss whether Javier Mascherano and Pablo Zabaleta are healthy enough to play after each getting cracked in the head on Wednesday. Both were on the ground as doctors evaluated their conditions. Argentina is already missing one key player, and it can't afford defensive holes or players searching for their form in unfamiliar roles. Just look at what Thiago Silva's absence did to Brazil in the back.
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