By Mary Cunningham

In a match as tight and tense as this sport could produce, Argentina outlasted the Netherlands 4-2 on penalties after a scoreless draw.

How close was it? Maxi Rodríguez’s deciding strike in the shootout knocked off goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen’s hands before clanking off the crossbar and into the roof of the net.

As the ball settled on the grass inside the goal, Arena de São Paulo exploded with the screams of tens of thousands of blue-and-white-bedecked Argentines, who are now a match away from scaling the World Cup mountain in the land of their greatest rival. As their heroes danced around every inch of the sidelines, they swayed and sang as one.

“We’ve crossed the Rubicon,” said Alejandro Sabella, Argentina’s coach. “I don’t know what we have crossed but we made it to the end.”

In a game that couldn’t have been more different than Germany’s 7-1 semifinal dismantling of Brazil 24 hours before, Argentina and the Netherlands played the kind of deliberate, tight match that World Cup semifinals usually deliver. This was a game of pressing and frustration, of few openings and even fewer chances, a night when it became clear early on that just a single goal would likely make the difference.

Argentina’s win sets up a rematch of the 1986 and 1990 finals. In those matches, Argentina’s team was built around Diego Maradona, the greatest player in the world at the time, who proved too much for the more balanced Germans to handle the first time but couldn’t beat Germany twice in a row. Now it falls to Lionel Messi, Maradona’s modern heir, to bring the World Cup trophy back to Argentina for the first time in nearly three decades and back to South America for the first time since 2002, the last time a South American team (Brazil) made the final.

The Dutch nearly broke through in the 90th minute as Arjen Robben darted deep into the area. But as he fired from 5 yards, a sprinting Javier Mascherano stretched his right foot as far as it would go and made a game-saving block.

In the 115th minute, Argentina’s Rodrigo Palacio got his head on a through ball 8 yards from the goal but couldn’t pop it over Cillessen’s hands.

Through extra time, this match was as dead even as it gets. The two sides managed just 15 shots on goal, eight for Argentina, seven for the Dutch. Corners were 4-4, same as offside. Crosses were 21-21.

This was the second near-death experience in three matches for Argentina, which survived a round-of-16 duel with Switzerland on the strength of Ángel Di María’s goal in the 118th minute.

The two sides played a careful first half, both staying so organized that at times they looked like wooden puppets attached to the metal rods on a Fussball table. With the weather at kickoff a cool 60 degrees, the players didn’t have to battle the heat and humidity that stretched defenses and left so much open space in previous games at this tournament. As a result, neither could muster many quality chances in the run of play.

After having his way with the timid Belgians in the quarterfinals, Messi struggled to find even the little room he needs to reach that final gear that no one else on the planet has. Nearly every time he touched the ball, orange shirts swarmed him, or central defender Ron Vlaar stuck his knees or his feet in Messi’s way and poked the ball away.

Robben, Messi’s counterpart, had almost as much trouble with Argentina’s backline, which gave him no space to rip his signature shot from the edge of the penalty area as he cut in from the wings.

And so it went to penalties. In the quarterfinal against Costa Rica, the clutch goalkeeping of late substitute Tim Krul saved the Oranje. This time, with the Dutch out of substitutions, the shootout was Cillessen’s fish to fry.

Dutch coach Louis van Gaal said he ran out of substitutes and didn’t have Krul at his disposal because Martins Indi received a yellow card in the first half and was playing poorly, and Nigel de Jong had to be replaced by the more offensive Jordy Clasie. Then Robin Van Persie had to come out in the 96th minute because he was exhausted.

Van Gaal said he asked two players if they wanted to take the first penalty kick before settling on Vlaar, because he felt the defender was the strongest player on the field and would have the confidence needed to put the ball in the net from 12 yards. But after playing a brilliant match, Vlaar sent a feeble first shot just to the left of Romero, who barely had to move to make the save.

Cillessen didn’t save a shot, and he couldn’t make up for misses by Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder, who fell victim to a brilliant diving save by Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who thanked his teammates when it was over for “120 spectacular minutes on the field where they left there life.”

Live by penalties, die by penalties.


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