Rafael Benitez on World Cup 2014: Never mind Neymar – Argentina will feel loss of free-running Angel Di Maria against Netherlands

In his exclusive column for The Independent, the former Liverpool manager and current Napoli boss warns that the Netherlands shouldn't underestimate Argentina's tactical flexibility during their semi-final meeting

We have heard a lot about the Brazilian favelas and Argentina has its special difficult conditions too. They call them the potreros. It is where they play football, normally on small pieces of land – irregular – and it is because of the difficulties that the players look for football to give them a way out. Don’t underestimate how the poverty has given Argentina the players it has. I have known a lot of them and I know that with Argentina there is a spirit which few other nations have.

They have a very tough job now that we are into the last week of the tournament. Everyone has been talking about Neymar in the last three days but Argentina losing Angel Di Maria has consequences which could be just as serious – maybe we can say more serious – than Brazil losing their talisman. I’m talking about options. We have seen Alejandro Sabella, the Argentina manager, being very flexible with his tactics in the tournament. He started with a line of five in midfield in the first half of the first game against Bosnia. Then he went to 4-3-1-2, then 4-2-3-1, with Lionel Messi behind Gonzalo Higuain, my striker at Napoli, Di Maria on the right and Ezequiel Lavezzi the left – giving width. Di Maria was really good in the one-on-one situations and, when he was moving forward, Messi could be more free.

Angel Di Maria celebrates his winner against Switzerland Angel Di Maria celebrates his winner against Switzerland  

Now, without Di Maria, the Netherlands team don’t have to worry about that wide area. They can focus on Messi and he can be controlled more. The midfielders can be more aware of Messi because – like we said on Friday – it was very difficult for Belgium’s Axel Witsel, a big player, to control Messi in the quarter-final. Sabella has also made changes in defence – Jose Maria Basanta for Marcos Rojo – but Basanta is a centre-back and won’t get forward like Rojo has. Again: less threat in wide areas, maybe, making it easier to focus on Messi. Easier. Not easy!

Read more: Van Persie a doubt for semi-final
Netherlands vs Argentina match preview
Messi vows to 'do everything'

If you watch Wednesday’s semi-final, look out for Gonzalo and his qualities. There has been talk at the Argentina press conference about an ankle injury he picked up at the end of last season but I don’t think that will have been a problem for him. We rested him because of the ankle and then he came back before the end of the season. We have learnt a lot about him at Napoli in the last season. He can score great goals, of course: we saw that on Saturday against Belgium when he struck the ball so well. But he is more than a finisher. He passes the ball well and technically he is very good, linking play. As managers, we like that aspect in a striker. All the strikers play on confidence, too. Maybe some of them think too much! I have had conversations with him during the tournament and I can see and feel how important that goal against Belgium is to his belief.

Gonzalo Higuain of Argentina (2nd L) celebrates scoring his team's first goal with Angel di Maria (L), Lionel Messi (2nd L) and Lucas Biglia Gonzalo Higuain of Argentina (2nd L) celebrates scoring his team's first goal with Angel di Maria (L), Lionel Messi (2nd L) and Lucas Biglia  

Look out for the part Javier Mascherano plays tonight. Watch the role he plays because it is an interesting one, subtle, maybe not appreciated with all the Messi talk. He is the anchorman, as I know you call it, and he has that character and fight you will remember from when he was with us at Liverpool. But he is important for the balance of the Argentina team. Messi is very offensive and everybody is working, fighting, thinking about getting forwards to get him into the offensive positions where he is dangerous. Javier is what I think you say is the “counterbalance”. The quality of balance isn’t always appreciated but it is important in a team. I could talk about many games at Liverpool but you will remember the Champions League semi-final second leg at Anfield in 2007, when we cancelled out Chelsea’s home leg and won on penalties. We had two wingers, attacking Chelsea’s full-backs, and Steven Gerrard running in between the lines, leaving only Javier holding. He did his job so well.

If Sergio Aguero is fit for the semi-final, I think Sabella might play him and Higuain together, with Messi behind them. That would help Argentina. But although everybody is talking about their great four offensive players they are a team who have shown the most flexibility, adapting their systems. They have been criticised by some people in the early stages but they will be very difficult to beat now.

 

Van Gaal’s shoot-out sleight of hand was all about results

The use of Tim Krul as a goalkeeper by Louis van Gaal, just for the Netherlands penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica was clever. We don’t know how many penalties Jasper Cillessen would have saved so it is impossible to know how clever, but I think you know my idea about penalty shoot-outs. Always working to get the best results. Analysing, analysing, finding information for your goalkeeper.

Netherlands' substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul celebrates after saving two penalties in the shootout victory over Costa Rica Netherlands' substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul celebrates after saving two penalties in the shootout victory over Costa Rica  

If Krul had not made the saves, Van Gaal would have had to take the criticism, so it was bold. Another example of how managing is not about philosophies, projects and strategies but about the training ground and the match situation – thinking about which ways to make a better outcome for the team. The players will always remember what he did on Saturday night.

 

A giant loss to the game with passing of legend Di Stefano

The World Cup absorbs us but while we prepare for a thrilling finale, the world of football has suffered a very great loss. I was so sad to hear that Don Alfredo Di Stefano has passed away. All my sympathy to his family and also to Real Madrid, the club where he was a true great and an honorary chairman. He was a giant in the game. “Legend” was a title that truly fitted him.

 

‘Ask Rafa’ and we’ll look back on the tournament together

We are reaching the end of the tournament and it has been good to talk about games, players, systems. At the end of the last tournament I wrote about, we did an “Ask Rafa” column, when you put your questions. It was popular, so I thought we could do it again. Email your questions this week to sport@independent.co.uk. Make “Ask Rafa” the subject and we will get down to tackling them for a last World Cup column next week.

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