Will the South Americans suffer without Ángel Di María? And can Robin van Persie rediscover his early tournament form?
How will Di María’s absence affect Argentina?
While Ángel Di María was Real Madrid’s best player in the Champions League final, he has been more fitful for Argentina. He scored the extra-time winner against Switzerland but had been having a torrid time before curling the ball past Diego Benaglio and the midfielder has performed in fits and bursts. All the same, Argentina would rather Di María had not suffered the thigh injury against Belgium that has ruled him out for the rest of the tournament. Enzo Pérez, the Benfica midfielder, is an able deputy but Di María is a special player on his day and still had time to become one of Argentina’s driving forces. Holland will be pleased not to see him.
Van Persie’s form
Robin van Persie began the tournament with the header to end all headers, that staggering swan-dive improvisation that sent the ball looping over a baffled Iker Casillas and Holland on their way to a momentous 5-1 crushing of Spain. Then came an emphatic finish in the win over Australia, at which point it seemed that Van Persie was going to take the World Cup by storm after a disappointing season for Manchester United. However, it has not quite worked out like that – well, not yet at least. After impressing during the group stage, Van Persie has been below par in Holland’s two knock-out games. He was ineffective against Mexico in the second round and was replaced by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who played a key part in the late Dutch revival, and he was also underwhelming against Costa Rica, missing a good chance as the minutes ticked away. When Van Persie tucked away his penalty in the shoot-out, he looked relieved. Yet while Holland need him at his best against Argentina, it would be monumentally stupid to write him off and part of the problem for long spells against Costa Rica and Mexico was that both sides defended deep, negating Holland’s speed on the break. There could be more space to exploit against Argentina – and that is when Van Persie could come into his own.
Higuaín and Lavezzi’s movement
Gonzalo Higuaín has never quite convinced in an Argentina shirt and there were many wondering whether he was worth his place leading into the quarter-final against Belgium. He had not scored and his impact had been minimal. But he managed an instinctive, deadly strike that beat Thibaut Courtois, a goal that showcased Higuaín’s poise and class, demonstrating that he can be the difference between failure and glory for Argentina. It also lifted the load on Messi, who was increasingly having to do it on his own as his fellow forwards floundered in their search for lift-off in Brazil. Obviously Messi is more than capable of deciding any match in Argentina’s favour with one imperious swish of his left foot but leaving it all to him is a high-risk strategy given that he will probably be confronted by at least two players when he receives the ball. And he will receive the ball a lot. Messi, of course, can wriggle his way out of the tightest of clinches but what if Holland do find that they have found a way to nullify him? When there was a lack of movement in the first half of Argentina’s opening game against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Messi struggled. When his team-mates moved and occupied the Bosnian defenders more in the second half, Messi scored a solo stunner. That is why it is crucial that Higuaín and Ezequiel Lavezzi, both excellent players in their own right but support acts in this scenario, are on song. Make room for Messi and one way or another, Argentina will probably reach the final.
Holland’s defence without Vlaar
Ron Vlaar has been a rock for Holland, marshalling their defence and using his experience to guide the younger players around him, so it will be a huge blow if a knee injury keeps him out on Wednesday night. It will not be the end of the world and there hopes of reaching the final would not disappear with Vlaar, but their defence could have a shakier feel without the 29-year-old. Despite playing for an Aston Villa side not exactly known for its solidity, Vlaar has put his domestic travails to one side and excelled in Brazil, particularly against Spain, when he denied Diego Costa an early goal with a perfectly timed last-ditch tackle. Holland could do with him being passed fit.
Would Van Gaal do it again?
Bad news for supporters of Liverpool and Manchester City: it appears that Louis van Gaal is never, ever wrong. And even when the Manchester United-bound manager is wrong, he gets it right in the end anyway and then he’ll tell you in painstaking detail why he was right, why you’re an idiot and why he was right, so there. First he stuck two fingers up to the 4-3-3 advocates by making his three-man defence work, then there was the water-break tactical switch against Mexico and finally and most famously, there was his decision to mess with Costa Rica’s heads by bringing on Tim Krul for the penalty shoot-out. Krul’s penalty record is not particularly special. Essentially he is a bigger man than Jasper Cillessen. But that was all part of the bluff: it made Costa Rica think that Krul was going to be the hero. Penalties are about technique but you also have to keep your nerve, so Van Gaal’s psychological trick worked a treat. But would he do it again or was it a once-in-a-lifetime ruse? The game might be up: the world has seen Van Gaal’s hand and Argentina might not be flustered as easily. If the game is winding its way to a shootout, it will be fascinating to see if Krul is told to warm up – and then if we are treated to the sight of him acting up again and bawling in Messi’s poker face as the Argentina star prepares to take his penalty.