ABy Joe Fish, Reporter and Alex Meyers, Reporter
Argentina have claimed a dramatic penalty shootout win against the Netherlands in the last four of the World Cup to set up a final against Germany at the Maracana on Sunday.
Following a goalless 120 minutes in Sao Paulo it took penalties to separate the sides, with the South Americans winning 4-2 in the shootout to reach the final for the fifth time in their history.
Gonzalo Higuain came the closest to breaking the deadlock in normal time when his near-post poke, following Enzo Perez’s run and cross down the right, rustled the side netting of Jasper Cillessen’s goal.
Cillessen was maintained in the Dutch net despite the quarter-final penalty-shootout heroics of Tim Krul, but was only called into action once in the first half, to hold a sweetly-struck Lionel Messi free kick.
Set pieces proved to be Argentina’s greatest source of opportunities early on as Ezequiel Garay stooped to head over the crossbar from a 23rd-minute corner, under pressure from Ron Vlaar, who, along with captain Robin van Persie, was passed fit for Louis van Gaal’s side only shortly before the kickoff.
Van Persie and Arjen Robben, though, were kept very quiet in the first half, thanks in part to Javier Mascherano’s excellent shielding of the South Americans’ defence, which largely limited the Dutch to long-range efforts.
Much of the pre-match talk had surrounded Messi and Robben, and which of the talisman could inspire their country to victory, but the Holland winger had only six touches during the opening 45 minutes.
Messi was slightly brighter, weaving his way through a couple of challenges before being fouled by Bruno Martins Indi on the stroke of the break, and the booked Dutch defender did not reappear after the interval.
His replacement, Daryl Janmaat, was his side’s saviour 10 minutes into the second period when he made up excellent ground to block Higuian’s 10-yard header, after Ezequiel Lavezzi had picked out the striker.
Alejandro Sabella turned to Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero, not risked from the start because of a recent injury, off the bench on 81 minutes, but it was left-back Marcos Rojo who threatened to put Argentina through in 90 minutes with a powerful left-footed drive from distance which Cillessen hung on to.
Having had little influence on the game, Robben nearly won it for Netherlands in stoppage time when he ran onto Sniejder’s flick and into the area, but a last-ditch tackle from Mascherano prevented him from shooting.
Robben had the first chance of extra time when he cut in from the right and worked the ball onto his left foot, before firing in a drive that was well held by Cillessen.
Both teams struggled to create any clear-cut chances, leading to Stefan de Vrij attempting his luck with a strike from range that sailed well wide of the goal.
As the threat of penalties loomed ever closer, substitute Rodrigo Palacio almost snatched a winner for Argentina, but after latching onto a long ball over the top, he could only plant his header into the gloves of the keeper.
The South Americans were enjoying a strong end to the match and Maxi Rodriguez was next to threaten when he was picked out at the back post, but his weak effort on goal failed to test Cillessen. It proved to be the last chance of the match, as the game headed towards a penalty shootout.
The Netherlands went first in the shootout, but Vlaar saw his spot kick saved by Romero and Argentina were soon ahead when Messi calmly slotted his effort into the corner sending the keeper the wrong way.
Robben scored his country’s first of the evening, before Garay smashed his effort into the roof of the net.
Captain Sneijder stepped up next, but Romero saved his attempt, before Aguero put Argentina 3-1 up.
Kuyt had to score to keep the Netherlands in the match and he made no mistake with a low effort into the corner.
It meant that Rodriguez would win the game for Argentina if he scored, and he smashed his penalty past Cillessen to send his team through to the final.