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As Emiliano Martinez’s spell persists, and Lionel Messi continues to conjure magic, Louis van Gaal’s charm at last wears off. But only just. Van Gaal enthrallingly and admirably pushed his Netherlands team and Argentina to the very limit, coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 and so close to the most fitting of victories.
It wasn’t to be, but only after a frankly unbelievable amount of drama and because Martinez remains the master at penalty kicks. The goalkeeper again ended up Argentina’s true hero, even on a night when Messi scored and produced one of his most inspired World Cup moments.
That means this may be the last match of Van Gaal’s career, but what a game. Qatar’s sportswashing now has an epic to go with so many great moments.
It also means it gets more of Messi. He may yet have his most beautiful ending, but only after something that became as ugly as it did farcically entertaining.
Argentina had to fight for it. They had to scrap for it. Messi could have been sent off for it.
There was even redemption for Lauturo Martinez, who hit the winning penalty.
There is not to be a grand rematch with Brazil, though. They went out beforehand. Perhaps that only fosters the feeling that – at last – this is Argentina’s year.
They will need some time to recover from this. So will most in the stadium.
It was remarkable to think there was at one point such poise in the game, and that was even relatively prosaic. That was initially elevated, and energised, by Messi’s first major contribution.
It was quite a bit of calculation, too. The feint wasn’t the only piece of deception. Throughout this World Cup, and partly because of the way Argentina have been set up, the captain has constantly played a pass out left from that same area.
It has usually resulted in deliveries a lot more rudimentary than what Messi eventually produced. Perhaps the Dutch defence should have been forewarned by the deft manner in which the playmaker first took the ball. It emphasised he was in a different kind of mood. Having shaped to play the same pass he usually does, Messi then elegantly shifted his body before slipping an elusive ball inside Nathan Ake through the only gap he could. That was to Nahuel Molina, who took one touch on the go before prodding it past Andries Noppert.
It was also no less than Argentina deserved at that stage. In that early period, they had been the only side actually looking to play it forward.
It was the first time the Netherlands had been behind in this World Cup, and they now needed to do something different themselves.
They did switch it up, for their part. Van Gaal’s side began to sling balls into the box from fairly early on, realising it was causing problems. They caused even more when Luuk de Jong and Wout Weghorst were brought on.
It also set a clear pattern to the game. The Dutch were trying to work opportunities to launch it, Argentina were frequently breaking into the space now left behind. Another goal was clearly coming. Alexis Mac Allister overhit a pass when Molina was surging through again. Messi hit a free-kick narrowly over.
The Dutch were getting panicked. Marcos Acuna lured Jurrien Timber into a hasty attempt at a challenge. It was just inside the box, and it meant Netherlands were going out of the World Cup.
Messi naturally stepped up. Noppert inevitably tried to put him off. Messi just put it in the top corner.
The Dutch now had to up it. That’s precisely what Steven Berghuis did. With a cross that finally found a Dutch head, and Weghorst having impressively found space, the 6ft 6in forward plundered a brilliant header.
The Dutch didn’t just have one lighthouse showing the path to goal, but two of them. Argentina went from doing pretty much as they wanted to just doing anything to ensure the Netherlands couldn’t launch a long ball towards one of those forwards. That at one point involved Leandro Paredes launching a loose ball into the Dutch bench and sparking a melee.
Argentina felt it required a fight. The Dutch undercut them by underhitting it.
That wonderfully worked free-kick was something Weghorst has done before. It was something Argentina have done before, most famously through Javier Zanetti.
But now? In this situation?
Who else could have imagined that, in the very last moment of a 100-minute World Cup quarter-final, when you desperately need a goal, the play would have been to deftly pass it through to the giant Weghorst’s feet?
Van Gaal did. That was why this was a piece of alchemy regardless of what happened. It was inspired. It was incredible.
It set an extra-time period that tested the legs, and especially Dutch nerves. There was little football played but what there was saw a Martinez shot – of course – cannon off Virgil van Dijk and wide. Another effort was deflected over. Messi almost scored with a corner. Enzo Fernandez smashed the post from distance.
It was as if Argentina knew emotional momentum would be with the Netherlands for penalties. They had just the man to reverse that. This time, it wasn’t Messi.
Martinez, as he has done so often, saved two penalties brilliantly. The first was from Van Dijk. Messi rolled his in. Momentum was back with Argentina.
The crowd roared. Martinez scored. Messi stood there directing them. Van Gaal, however, can stand tall.
Even in the worst of settings, this was a great World Cup match between great football countries and figures.
One of them goes further in the tournament. Both will leave an even greater legacy after this.