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SPORTS | 12-12-2022 16:20

Messi and his band of brothers show their strength in Qatar

Against a Netherlands team which for 80 minutes did little more than hold firm in their own half, Argentina showed a tactical flexibility which flummoxed veteran Oranje coach Louis van Gaal and kept them on top.

Argentina are determined to do things the hard way at this World Cup. But their luck is holding out, just, and another gigantic shoot-out display to evoke memories of Brazil 2014 has left the nation on the very verge of glory eight years later.

Who could possibly forget that heady day in São Paulo? Three hours of tense, indecisive action on the pitch, followed by Sergio Romero, on Javier Mascherano's advice, “becoming a hero” and dumping the Netherlands out of the World Cup while sending Argentina into the final. Fast forward to 2022 and the emotions are just the same, albeit with a few different protagonists and a round earlier – and with rather more bad blood than the last time round.

This time, just like at the Copa América, it was Emiliano Martínez's turn to take centre-stage. After Argentina let victory slip through their fingers by blowing a 2-0 lead in the final ten minutes before full-time, and then suffered the agony of seeing Enzo Fernández's rasping shot smash against the post towards the end of the additional half-hour, you would have been forgiven for thinking that those anguished circumstances would puncture their chances of penalty success, as had seemingly occurred with Brazil just hours earlier.

But if that was the script, nobody had informed Dibu. The Aston Villa goalkeeper – he of “I'm going to eat you, brother” fame – set his team off to a perfect start with two giant saves to deny both Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis. Lionel Messi (who else?) and Leandro Paredes proceeded to convert their own kicks, giving Argentina an almost insurmountable advantage. It did not even matter, ultimately, that Fernández dragged his own effort wide of the post; or perhaps it did. Because that set up Lautaro Martínez to become his nation's saviour after such a tough tournament personally, and the Inter man obliged with a fine effort that sealed victory and kicked off what will be a night of wild celebrations both in Qatar and Argentina.

In truth, a different result would have been more than unjust for Messi and Co. Against a Netherlands team which for 80 minutes did little more than hold firm in their own half, Argentina showed a tactical flexibility which flummoxed veteran Oranje coach Louis van Gaal and kept them on top. It was hardly overwhelming superiority, but enough to establish what looked like a game-winning two-goal advantage through Nahuel Molina and Messi, the latter assisting the full-back with a sublime pass before converting his first penalty of the night. Netherlands did not give up, though, and aided by decisive moments of defensive inattention around the area and much-maligned referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz and his absurd awarding of ten minutes' added time, staged a memorable comeback right at the death.

Again, better teams than this Argentina unit have been crushed by such a cruel turn of events. But as we have seen time and time again Messi and his band of brothers are made of stronger stuff. They thrive off adversity, their siege mentality and 'f*** the rest' attitude proving once more the difference between defeat and victory. Opponents loathe it, especially the defeated, and the end of Friday's marathon could easily have been marked by flying fists in the best Libertadores tradition. But they do not care a jot, and neither do their fans; and neither Croatia in the semi-final nor anyone else in this tournament will relish coming up against this side.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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