Just minutes into last night’s match, Lionel Messi dropped right back into his own half to collect a throw-in. It was still not enough to throw off Nigel de Jong.
There, as Messi turned, was the Dutch defensive midfielder. He was within three yards of the No 10 and rarely strayed much further until he tired and was taken off on 62 minutes, which only ensured someone else took up the baton.
When the playmaker eventually got away, he found Dirk Kuyt there all too willing to clatter him to the ground. It was to be a theme of the game, and its central crux, creating such a tense occasion.
No matter what Arjen Robben ended up doing, its effect was still dependent on how well the Dutch coped with Messi.
The manner in which he dominated the psychology of this match could be seen before kick-off. Even the Dutch manager, Louis van Gaal, who has never exactly been a man for airs and graces, stayed lingering around the line-ups in order to catch Messi’s eye and shake his hand. Many of the manager’s players were the same.
The match itself, then, followed a similar mindset. The Netherlands were initially so obsessed with just getting close to Messi that they were almost petrified to stray too far forward. He conditioned everything that took place.
That did not just represent a challenge for the Dutch, of course, but for the player himself and his team. The focused tightness of such defending requires top-level responses.
It also came amid difficult personal circumstances. Jorge Lopez, the Argentinian journalist who died on the eve of the game, was Messi’s closest friend in the country’s media. Even a fixture such as a World Cup semi-final seems utterly trivial next to such a tragedy, but the reality was Messi had to persevere through it.
“Perseverance” was one way to sum up the pattern of the match. Messi eventually evaded De Jong again with a determined burst down the line, beating two players before checking back in. But Messi or other Argentina attackers were themselves challenged with a certain aggression on occasions.
It was another dilemma facing the Dutch. How close were they willing to go to the aggression of the 2010 final in order to stop Messi, and thereby risk the kind of cards that would leave them with only 10 men?
On 37 minutes, Bruno Martins Indi escaped sanction for what seemed a clear elbow into the playmaker’s ribs, but Messi did later force the defender into a booking with one sublime piece of trickery out on the right.
Another such foul did leave Messi with a chance to put Argentina 1-0 up midway through the first half, but his free-kick was too central, allowing goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen to easily grip it.
The Dutch did step out a little more at the beginning of the second half, which seemed to release Messi. There were two immediate warnings. The first was when he was caught just offside with one break. The second was when the ball suddenly broke to him. He got around De Jong with sheer pace but the space still had not opened up enough. There was still another body blocking the way.
It needed a little more than physicality minutes later. It needed exquisite timing, which Ron Vlaar provided. With Messi just looking to skip to the left and set himself up on the edge of the box, the Aston Villa defender got his foot to the ball perfectly.
At the very least, it could be said the best player in the world also brought out the best in the defenders he was facing.
By then, De Jong had gone off, but the seamless way the Dutch kept shackling was impressive.
It was a game of dogged tenacity and tension rather than devastating technique. Van Gaal’s effective personal duel with Messi fully displayed that.
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