5 Things to Watch For: Argentina vs Netherlands

While Brazil vs Germany may be drawing all the headlines with the host nation undergoing a national state of emergency thanks to Neymar’s injury, the “other” semifinal is equally as enthralling.

Argentina and the Netherlands have a World Cup history of their own as both semifinal matchups in 2014 are rematches of World Cup Finals.  In fact, Argentina defeated the Netherlands in the 1978 Final in extra time on home soil to win their first World Cup.  That was also the last time the World Cup Final was played on South American soil.

Now in 2014, the Netherlands are still looking for their World Cup triumph and their second straight final appearance in what has been a surprising run.  Argentina is in search of their fifth final and what could be the crowning moment for this generation’s best player – Lionel Messi.

Here’s 5 Things to Watch For in the second World Cup semifinal…

5. Will Either Side Open Up?

The group stage was lauded for its exciting brand of soccer and the amount of goals being scored.

The knockout stage… well, not so much.

The drop in goals is not unprecedented… but it has been stark.  Just take a look at how scoring has dropped in each round of the 2014 World Cup.

Group Stage: 2.83 goals per game
Round of 16: 2.25 goals per game
Quarterfinals: 1.25 goals per game

It’s a natural, sensical progression.  Teams are much more cautious once a tournament reaches the knockout round as strategies get more defensive and underdogs view reaching penalties as an objective.  But it is disappointing considering how exciting and pleasing to the eye the action was in the group stage.  The Brazil-Colombia game is a perfect example.  On paper it should have been an epic.  In reality, it turned into a bloodbath.

Both Argentina and the Netherlands can play a wide-open game emphasizing the great attacking talent on display.  However, considering their QF performances, one can easily envision a contest that could be described as “cagey.”  If one side does decide to open up the game a bit, it could be a winning move.

4. Fallen Angel

While Neymar’s injury has gotten all the press, Argentina’s loss of Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria may prove to be equally as massive.  Di Maria scored the winner against Switzerland and has generally been the most effective Argentine attacker outside Lionel Messi.  He provides a very similar game to that of Arjen Robben on the other side with his ability to both cut inside and stretch the backline.

Manchester City star Sergio Aguero is a possibility to step in, but he’s struggled with form and fitness during the tournament.  Argentina will need him to find his very best on Wednesday if he stands in as Di Maria’s replacement.

3. How will Louis van Gaal line up the Dutch?

The new Manchester United manager has put in one of the best coaching performances of the tournament, getting his side far further than most analysts would have expected.  Coming off a disastrous Euro 2012 with a mishmash team of veterans attackers and inexperienced defenders, not much was expected of the Netherlands in 2014.  But ever since their thrashing of Spain to open the tournament, the Dutch have picked up where they left off in 2010.

Much of it has been due to Van Gaal getting the most out of his team for each and every game.

We’ve seen him deploy 5 at the back, play star attacker Arjen Robben all over the final third, and be willing to change shape and adapt to the opposition.  We’ve even seen Van Gaal go with an audacious goalkeeper sub and call on Newcastle’s Tim Krul to win a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.

Argentina presents an interesting dilemma and something tells me van Gaal will have a trick up his sleeve for the challenge of Lionel Messi.  A back 5 doesn’t make a lot of sense if Messi is going to drop into deeper positions to collect possession and leave Gonzalo Higuain alone up front.  Van Gaal could elect to crowd the midfield to try to slow down Messi.  However, he could play his 5-3-2 formation conceding Messi space and try and hit Argentina on the counter with Robben and Memphis Depay.  Van Gaal’s lineup and how he molds the Dutch is the most interesting tactical facet of the semifinals.

2. Wesley Sneijder vs Javier Mascherano

So often in these hugely important games, it’s all about who controls the midfield.  The most intriguing and most significant direct battle is Dutch attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder against Argentine defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano.

Mascherano will be charged with doing what he does so well – breaking up the attacking flow of the opposition.  And as much as Robin Van Persie is the bellwether for the Dutch team, it always seems like the Netherlands do well when Sneijder is able to get on the scoreboard.

1. Messi

For all the analysis, for all the tactical maneuvering, for all the hype surrounding this game, it’s all about one man – Lionel Messi.

For the longest time, this tournament has been ordained as Messi’s chance at glory on the international stage.  The 2014 World Cup is his opportunity to finally join the likes of Pele and Maradona and the all-time greats who have produced for club and country.  As brilliant as he has been for Barcelona, Messi will never reach that class until he wins a World Cup.

So far in Brazil he has been sensational, even as opponents place 100% of their focus on stopping him.  His four goals (all scored in the group stage) are tied for second in the tournament.  He set up the game winner against the Swiss in the Round of 16.  His play in the quarterfinal against Belgium didn’t produce anything on the scoreboard, but his patient overall play was stellar.

There’s one player left in this tournament who can carry his team to a World Cup.  It’s time for Lionel Messi to choose his fate.