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    Jul 08, 2014 3:48 AM GMT

    The Netherlands has missed more World Cups (nine) than it has played in (eight) since 1950. But when the Dutch do navigate the qualifying process, they are usually a contender. They have been to the semifinals five times since 1974, and to the final three times over that period. Of course, they lost them all, but still. ...


    It is hard to watch anyone except Lionel Messi when Argentina plays, since he is the engine of everything his team does and the one player left in the tournament capable of something magical every time he has the ball. But on Wednesday, keep an eye on Messi’s attacking sidekick, Sergio Agüero, who is back from an injury just in time to take the place of Ángel di María, who will miss Wednesday’s game with an injury of his own.

    Agüero is a lethal finisher with his club team, Manchester City, but he and Messi have not always meshed well for the national team. If they can sort that out in the absence of di María, or at least stay out of each other’s way enough to allow Messi to provide for Agüero’s proven killer instinct, the Dutch defense could be in trouble.


    One could argue that it is Robin van Persie, who scored three goals in the first two games of the tournament but none since. (On Sunday, van Persie whiffed on a golden chance near the net that might have prevented the Costa Rica game from going to penalty kicks.)

    But what the Netherlands really needs against Argentina is a leader. In the past, that might have been a tough midfielder like Nigel de Jong, who could deliver a few well-timed whacks on Messi to set the tone. But de Jong is out, most likely for the rest of the World Cup, and so the leadership role rests squarely on the shoulders of the playmaker Wesley Sneijder. The supremely confident Sneijder has held up in that role so far, providing the tying goal in the 88th minute against Mexico in the Round of 16 and two shots that hit the post against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. If anyone is in position to get van Persie and Arjen Robben on the score sheet again, it is Sneijder.


    The referee, Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey. After a knee to the back knocked Neymar out of the tournament, FIFA named a disciplinarian to watch over Brazil-Germany and Cakir, another strict enforcer of the rules, for the second semifinal. Was that a message that stars might get a little extra protection in the semifinals? Ask Messi, who can sometimes use a little intervention from the referee, or the Netherlands’ Robben, who often tries to exploit it. And then hope that a controversial red card — like the one Cakir showed Manchester United’s Nani in a Champions League game in 2013 — is not what we are talking about when the game ends.


    Like Germany, Argentina feels it is due for a World Cup title to supplement its crowns from 1978 and ’86, and it surely knows that the seven World Cups played in the Americas were all won by South American teams. Now, with its team finally starting to purr behind Messi, and Brazil weakened by the loss of Neymar, Argentina is feeling its oats. Fans of the team have descended on Brazil by the tens of thousands, and the players have clearly been heartened by the support. They gathered to sing with the fans after beating Belgium on Saturday. A win over the Dutch would extend the party a few more days. If it gets to Rio, Argentina will feel as if it already has one hand on the trophy.


    Well they can’t always lose, can they? The Dutch remain the best team never to have won the World Cup, but maybe this is its time. Every move that Coach Louis van Gaal has made this summer has seemed to work out. Bring a young roster with some unproven names to face defending champion Spain? No problem. Tinker with the traditional system to get some more attacking from the flanks? No problem. Sub in a reserve goalkeeper for a penalty-kick shootout without telling the starter? Well, small problem — the starter, Jasper Cillessen, was not happy to be left out of that discussion — but still, no problem when it works out.

    Is there any stopping van Gaal now that he’s close? Don’t bet on it. Not from a man who once told the Dutch club that hired him, “Congratulations on signing the best manager in the world.” That was in 1991.
  • Posted by a hidden member.
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    Jul 09, 2014 12:18 AM GMT
    Argentina. Duh