A rematch of the 2014 World Cup semifinals - which ended in a shootout victory for Argentina over the Netherlands - seemed destined not to go that route for nearly the entire match. While the Dutch had chances, the first 80 minutes of the match saw Argentina the better side by a long shot; yet when things got down to the wire, Louis van Gaal and his side showed the same, brilliant resistance and resiliency that had left his side without a defeat since the legendary Dutch boss took control of the team in the run-up to this year’s World Cup.
Bringing Wout Weghorst of Besiktas - and likely soon of some larger team west of Türkiye - changed everything in the 78’, and even with two incredibly late goals to send the contest in to extra time, a game-winner could not be found before 120’ had left the official’s watch. Still, alongside the earlier match between Brazil and Croatia, the first day of quarterfinals matches in the 2022 World Cup was amongst the most exciting days of football that much of the footballing community can likely remember.
Argentina XI: Argentina chose to change things up against the Dutch more than this writer believed, and for most of the match, the 3-5-2 was effective in controlling the ball and putting pressure upon a fine Oranje defensive backline and goalkeeper. Wingbacks were employed - as the Dutch use - and three central defenders were employed to guard Emi Martinez.
The setup demonstrated an understanding of the potent Oranje attack, and was a thoughtful innovation for the Albiceleste. Leo Messi and Julian Alvarez, meanwhile, played up top, and would receive additional help from the likes of Marcos Acuna and Nahuel Molina in attack, along with Alexis Mac Allister and Rodrigo De Paul
Martinez; Martinez, Otamendi, Romero; Acuna, Mac Allister, Fernandez, De Paul, Molina; Alvarez, Messi
Netherlands XI: The Dutch, on the other hand, clearly felt comfortable with their ability to defend Argentina and all of its dangermen. In fact, they seemed more concerned about their ability to attack a very stout and compact Argentinian defense. Hence, Cody Gakpo, who had done such damage this tournament from up top alongside Memphis Depay in the 3-4-1-2, found himself sitting as a number ten in place of former Blues midfielder Davy Klaassen, who had previously done well in running the show for Louis van Gaal.
Former Spurs winger Steven Bergwijn, then, came to play next to Memphis, while the rest of the squad remained unchanged. van Gaal would not be shy to make changes at halftime or throughout the second half, and with resilience, found themselves with more joy in the final ten minutes of regular time, the huge amount of extra time given on top of that, as well as the extra sessions that followed that.
Noppert; Timber, Van Dijk, Ake; Dumfries, De Roon, De Jong, Blind; Gakpo; Bergwijn, Depay
Argentina bossed proceedings for 8/9ths of the match to be fair, but when the Dutch found some joy, they became invigorated by the innovation, and it quickly became obvious that the Albiceleste had maybe not put enough room between them and their opposition to be fully as comfortable as they would’ve liked. While Nahuel Molina found his first-ever international goal in the first half, and Leo would go on to win and execute a penalty in the second half, other opportunities presented themselves against a stingy Oranje side.
An Alexis Mac Allister through ball to Rodrigo De Paul before the second goal by Messi would have made it - at that point - a 2-0 match. The pass fell long, however, and De Paul’s cross was easily defended by the Dutch defense. Now, there is nothing saying that Messi would still have had his later penalty chance had that occurred, but had both happened, a 3-0 lead would’ve been a tough task for the flying Dutchmen to manage.
But a 2-0 lead is a dangerous lead in football - and especially in the World Cup. The Dutch battled and worked and thought and overcame. Wout Weghorst would come on for Memphis in the 78’, and would make an impact nearly immediately. The Argentinians had little early response for the massive Dutchman, who fills a role different than what Memphis does best in attack; Weghorst is a holdup man, and both of his goals illustrate this alongside his nose for the net.
It did, however, appear that the game might end 2-1 in regular time, without much more fuss; yet fuss was to be had, and the remarkably cheeky freekick pass to Weghorst in the box completely caught Argentina napping. Afraid of a close freekick on goal, defenders did not mark Wout hard enough, and his hold up play left him with an open chance in front of Emi Martinez who - despite having a really great day - could not stop that.
Extra time for the 90’ would eventually conclude after nearly 15 minutes, and in extra periods, it felt as though, while both teams would’ve liked to have won it there and then, that penalties were right around the bend.
Those penalties would be as dramatic as the first penalties of the day in the Brazil-Croatia affair, and while Marquinhos banged his final penalty kick off the left post, Lautaro Martinez would tuck his away in the left corner to put the match away with the final tally of 2(3) - 2(4). The scenes at that point became unbelievable. Tension boiling over, joy and pain mixing together and separating nearly instantly. Dutchmen fell to their knees in pain, while Argentinians flew into wild ecstasy - which included Messi chatting with van Gaal, mocking the fallen Orange men, and general scenes of pleasure and further anticipation.
To say that it was one of the best matches of the tournament might be underselling the spectacle to be fair. Yet to say it also undersells how good the first match of the day was, and how fraught with brilliant moments of awe and despair it was. Brazil-Croatia and Argentina-Netherlands will likely go down as one of the most amazing days of this World Cup, as well as all World Cups. We can all only hope that Argentina-Croatia is half as brilliant as either match was, and that the matches between Portugal-Morocco and England-France can live up to their predecessors.
Lionel Messi will go onto the semifinals of this World Cup, a legend looking for his first World Cup as his career is very much in its twilight. Louis van Gaal, meanwhile, the other legend of this match, maintains a remarkable distinction; he has not only still not lost since returning to the Dutch sidelines - which he will now be vacating for former Everton and Oranje boss Ronald Koeman - he has still never even been defeated at a World Cup, with his only ousters coming in the form of penalties against Argentina.
This was going to be one of those matches where, no matter who you were pulling for, some joy would be felt for the winning legend, while some sorrow would be felt for that man whose World Cup was to end in such a harsh and painful manner. What a time for football, indeed!