Argentina tops Holland on penalties to advance to World Cup final

Argentina players go crazy after Maxi Rodriguez slots home the game-winning penalty.Clive Rose/Getty Images Argentina players go crazy after Maxi Rodriguez slots home the game-winning penalty.

Argentina stalled and ground its way Wednesday into the World Cup final against Germany, winning a scoreless match on penalties, 4-2, when Maxi Rodriguez blasted his shot through Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for the clincher.

This was Rodriguez’s second turn at World Cup heroics for the Argentines, having scored on a far more brilliant volley in extra time against Mexico in a 2006 second-round match. But this one also got the job done, and now Argentina will face Germany in the final Sunday for the first time since a 1990 stinker in Italy.

Netherlands and Argentina produced one of those matches offering few scoring chances, and no risk taking. Eventually, of course, one of these spoilsport sides had to lose in the rainy Sao Paulo semifinal, even if nobody really tried very hard to win. A scoreless 90 minutes mandated an additional scoreless 30 minutes of extra time and the inevitable penalty-kick lottery.

Holland coach Louis van Gaal could be second-guessed on two decisions. First, he decided to stick with goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen this time, instead of using Tim Krul, the trash-talking giant used to intimidate and defeat Costa Rica in penalty kicks. Van Gaal already had used all his substitutions and left himself without that option.

Then van Gaal went with central defender Ron Vlaar as his first penalty taker, rather than with Arjen Robben or one of the other Dutch attakers. Vlaar went low right, but not far right enough, and Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero dived to his left to make the save. By contrast, Lionel Messi took the first penalty for Argentina and converted easily. Romero also made the save on Wesley Sneijder’s attempt.

All along on Wednesday in this dreary match, the Argentines were bound and determined to take their time with every pass, every shot, every decision. They were even late coming out of the halftime locker room, and late breaking their huddle before the final 15 minutes of extra time.

Not every match at a World Cup can be some great revelation. This semifinal was a cautious affair, with both top-level teams demonstrating far too much respect for the occasion and the opponent. Robben had a few decent runs and Argentina threatened a bit in the last few minutes, when Rodrigo Palacio had a dangerous header in the 115th minute that he couldn’t finish.

There was no magic from Messi, however, no diving exhibition from Robben. It was hard to believe this was the same Holland team that started the tournament on such a high-spirited note, taking down Spain on the fly.

The Dutch marked Messi tightly in the middle of the field, giving him no space to perform his dribbling forays into the box. Defender Ron Vlaar, in particular, was relentless. Meanwhile, Netherlands striker Arjen Robbens, such an enormous factor in matches leading up to this semifinal, was practically invisible. There were hardly so much as a half chance for either side in the first 45 minutes.

It was sad to see the Dutch, in particular, play so warily and cynically. This was the third time in the World Cup that Netherlands went into intermission without a single shot on goal. Bruno Martins Indi received a yellow card in the 45th minute for yet another shoving job on Messi.

Once again in the first half, there was a frightful collision of heads that left Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano appearing frighteningly disoriented. Fewer than three minutes after leaving the field, however, Mascherano returned to play without any sign whatsoever of a concussion protocol by FIFA or Argentina.

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