World Cup Semi-Final
Neterlands v Argentina
Tomorrow: Arena Corinthiana, Sao Paulo, 9pm
Tomorrow is Argentina’s Independence Day, and there is a fear in Brazil that it will mark the latest step towards what would be one of the most glorious moments in their country’s history.
The terror in the Brazilian national psyche as Argentina approach what they now believe is their destiny is impossible to ignore.
Winning the World Cup on Brazilian soil would mean more to Argentina as a nation than either of their previous two triumphs, and would elevate Lionel Messi to a level of adoration that is currently reserved only for Diego Maradona.
And as Brazil appear to be getting weaker, Argentina are growing in strength. There is talk of destiny even from within the team.
“I say it to everyone, I am tired of eating s**t,” one Argentine paper reports Javier Mascherano as saying in the dressing room to his team-mates before Saturday’s quarter-final against Belgium.
“I want joy for those who follow us and everyone. We are going out to play the game of our lives!”
It wasn’t the game of their lives but it was enough as Argentina continued the gradual improvement they have shown in every game.
Angel Di Maria’s injury is a blow, but with Gonzalo Higuain showing he is back to form to augment Messi they will go into tomorrow’s semi-final with the Netherlands as favourites.
Some 70,000 Argentines invaded Sao Paulo the last time they were here, for their last 16 game with Switzerland, and far more are expected tomorrow.
It made for a wild atmosphere — I have never felt as insecure in a press box, or seen more nakedness from supporters in the act of celebrating a late winner — but the team are conscious they cannot get carried away.
That said, the dream final — although security services in Rio may disagree — between Brazil and Argentina is still very much on the cards.
“It is a huge mistake if we start thinking about Brazil-Argentina in the final,” chides Pablo Zabaleta.
“We have to play one more game and Brazil have a tough game against Germany, who are a great team, so we just need to keep our feet on the ground and keep going.
“Brazil being at home can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. There is pressure but at the moment everything is going well for Brazil.
“They have won all their games, the support has been fantastic and I think the whole country is behind them.”
The whole country is certainly behind Argentina. They may lack the flair of Maradona’s 1986 vintage, but prosaic football can be accepted when you reach your first semi-final for 24 years.
“Beating Belgium [in the quarter-final] was not just a game,” said Mascherano. “After 24 years, we played for the previous World Cups the national team couldn’t make it to the semi-finals. It was a big weight we had been carrying.”
After three quarter-final exits out of four they finally made the last four. Sergio Aguero is winning his fitness battle to replace Di Maria and Sabella’s calm demeanour is paying off.
Certainly, Higuain’s return to form has been a huge fillip for a side that until the game against Belgium in Brasilia could not shy away from accusations of Messi-dependency.
“In terms of intensity, balance, intelligence and the importance of the stage, it was our best performance by far,” explains Mascherano.
“Higuain has been great, he gave his life for this team. But I could say the same for the other 21 players — I live with them 24 hours a day and their commitment is wonderful.”
They have also found a number of different ways to win. Turgid, grinding victories over Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran were followed by a more open, enterprising style against Nigeria before a fortunate win over Switzerland and most recently a rather more comprehensive victory over Belgium.
Sabella’s decision to bring in Martin Demichelis for Federico Fernandez has been justified, and this is a side that now seems to have the nous to do just enough in every game.
“Each game is different and what this team can do is also different,” is Zabaleta’s take.
“I know my function in this team and it is important each of us does. From that point on any criticism is part of the job.
“We are professionals and public persons and we live with that comfortably.
“If you are in the starting line-up you have to deliver. Being a starter demands double the effort and that’s what we work on.”
Now they must wait and see what Louis van Gaal throws at them. The Dutch manager has enjoyed a sensational tournament so far, every move paying off in quite some style, and he will have a plan for Messi.
But as the thousands upon thousands of Argentines flock to Sao Paulo, the second closest host city to their border, they will know that this could well be their time. The thought terrifies a Neymar-less Brazil and enlivens Argentina. Even before the semi-finals, a coronation for Messi and Argentina in the Maracana seems the most likely outcome.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved