Tactics stifle festival of football

THE BANNER held up in the Argentine end depicted Pope Francis with his disciples on either side.

Tactics stifle festival of football

To his right was Diego Maradona. On his left Lionel Messi.

The Dutch fans unfurled their own banner, too. It simply had a picture of Louis Van Gaal imprinted in the middle of it.

In the end, perhaps Van Gaal proved Messi is human after all. In the end, as he so often does, Messi had the last laugh.

Perhaps it was simply the case that the build-up was too much, that neither Messi nor Arjen Robben were able to shine on the biggest stage of all. More likely the stifling tactics of both managers was too big a hurdle for either to overcome.

Without putting too fine a point on it, this was turgid, dreary stuff, the type of game to excite those who believe football to be an extremely serious business.

But in the end, for Argentina the ends justified the means. Before last night their team of 1990 was the only side to win two penalty shoot-outs in the same World Cup.

Yet despite the misses by Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder in a penalty shoot-out, that was as strangely undramatic as the 120 minutes that had preceded it, we will remember this for nothing more than Argentina taking the last, final step towards the Maracana.

This was a game for the destroyers rather than the artisans, the cloggers over the creators.

Mindful, perhaps, of the astonishing scoreline from Belo Horizonte, Argentina and Holland resolved to take each other's finest players out of the game before letting the other mortals settle the outcome.

Messi will have nightmares about this night and about Nigel De Jong. Ruled out of the tournament just nine days ago due to a groin injury, De Jong's miraculous recovery meant he was able to fulfil his solitary role: stop Messi.

If the Argentine captain dropped deep, so did De Jong. If he went wide the AC Milan midfielder did the same.

Yet Argentina were hardly angelic themselves. Martin Demichelis had promised they would target Robben, and they were as good as their word.

That the Dutchman managed only six touches in the first-half was indicative of how the evening was going for him.

Indeed, those who thought this was going to be a festival of football were always likely to be disappointed.

Van Gaal and Alejandro Sabella have proven themselves during this tournament to be the most pragmatic of managers, both switching tactical formations and personnel depending on which opponent they were facing.

They have both enjoyed campaigns built first and foremost on defensive solidarity, conceding just seven goals in 10 games between them on their way to Sao Paulo.

But we had entered the evening with such high hopes of another feast of attacking football, of memories of Dennis Bergkamp, Mario Kempes and Johan Cruyff excelling in this fixture in the past.

For further inspiration there was a tribute to Alfredo Di Stefano, Argentina, Spain and Real Madrid's former hero, who sadly died on Monday.

The build-up was perfect, the fans doing their best to shake off the vapid noise of Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull to set up a grand occasion.

And then – well, then nothing.

Then we had two coaches demonstrating their art while the world watched and waited for the game to burst into life.

It was the sort of night where Vlaar, who has just come through a rather tortuous season with Aston Villa, resembled Franco Baresi.

Javier Mascherano, a venerable destroyer in his own right, was also superb, recovering from an early clash of heads with Georginio Wijnaldum to dominate the midfield, the highlight being a wonderful covering challenge on Robben late on.

Indeed, while Messi has been the shining light for Argentina during this tournament, Mascherano has been his side's heartbeat, and it was instructive that he gave the team-talk in between the two periods of extra-time.

But this was a fine night for Germany. A closely-fought semi-final between these sides, particularly one that went to extra-time, was more than Joachim Loew could have asked for.

What we saw last night will not have scared the Germans one little bit. Messi can be kept quiet and it would take a brave man to bet against Loew doing so in the Maracana on Sunday.

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