Messi's chance on the big stage
Lionel Messi will play in the World Cup final. Perhaps this shouldn't be a huge deal in the modern age, when, should you want to see Messi, he's available to you via television, Internet streams, Youtube and poseable action figures. 'The big stage' has rather less meaning when his whole life is in the spotlight, his every touch and his every utterance analysed unto absurdity by a highly trained gang of professional athlete-botherers, but it clearly is a big deal despite that. Sunday's match provides Messi with a unique opportunity to cement his status as an all-time great not just in terms of defenders bamboozled but silverware won as well.
What's curious about this chance is that, should the diminutive No. 10 inspire the albiceleste to a win against Germany, what will be fondly looked back upon years later as his finest moment comes during a time when not much is going right for him at all. Cristiano Ronaldo holds the Ballon d'Or. Two Madrid teams combined to take away all potential honours at club level last season. Catalonian dominance is no longer assured; the philosophy of football which Messi has grown up with is perhaps past its apogee. Win the final, however and all of this is forgotten in a flash.
Messi didn't even have a particularly good semifinal. Louis van Gaal assigned Nigel de Jong to trail him around the pitch, kicking him at every opportunity, and although Argentina were briefly able to take advantage of the space afforded by de Jong's exaggerated man-marking, the Netherlands soon settled down, both sides agreeing to a let's-wait-for-penalties stalemate. The match, perhaps, was so utterly devoid of magic that not even Messi could do anything about it, although the way he took his side's first penalty -- stride to the spot, stare down Jasper Cillesson, wait for the tell-tale flinch, BANG -- was at least mildly impressive.
But reputations aren't won or lost in World Cup semifinals, at least if you're not Brazilian. Germany are unlikely to resort to such crude anti-Messi measures as the Dutch, not least because if Bastian Schweinsteiger spent his time chasing the little magician around the pitch trying to kick him he'd almost certainly tear something important. Messi will have opportunities to influence the match, and since it's Messi, he might be expected to take them.
In sheer footballing terms, Messi doesn't need any help holding his own when compared against the all-time greats. But in terms of achievement, at least at international level, he's still lagging behind the likes of Pelé and Diego Maradona. What better way to make his mark, to make a mockery of all the criticisms of his play for Argentina, than to win a World Cup for the albiceleste on Brazilian soil?
Louis van Gaal's legacy
Louis van Gaal is a noisy man. This is a good thing, on balance. It's entertaining for neutrals; it's a godsend for journalists; it helps the entire planet fill the gaping voids in our lives when football isn't actually happening. Oh look, van Gaal's said something again. He's taken the credit for the discovery of vulcanized rubber. Of course he has.
And noisy people get the attention. Much of the focus of the post mortem, therefore, will focus on the decisions he made and the actions he's taken, on whether the good -- from the newfound tactical flexibility though the inspiration of Ron Vlaar and on to the introduction of Tim Krul for penalties -- outweigh the miscalculations against Argentina that saw him end up with the wrong goalkeeper and wrong first penalty taker.
But now that they're out -- or at least, through to a third-fourth playoff against a Brazil side who may still be weeping -- there are two wider, overarching points to take from their campaign. First, whatever the manner of their exit, a semi-final represents a significant overachievement for a wildly unbalanced squad shorn of Kevin Strootman, its most important midfielder. Before the tournament, van Gaal himself only gave his side a "twenty percent" chance of reaching the quarter-finals, citing the difficulty of the group and the number of stronger teams floating about. Perhaps that was kidology, but plenty agreed with him.
Secondly, and while Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie may have scored most of the goals, it's the youngsters that have really impressed. Daley Blind, Daryl Janmaat, Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij and Memphis Depay have all enhanced their reputations; Terence Kongolo, Jordy Clasie, Joel Veltman and Davy Klaassen have all spent time on the pitch. All are 24 or under. If even half go on to have substantial international careers, that will represent a good return.
So while van Gaal is off to terrify and/or inspire Manchester United's underperforming dilettantes, he leaves behind a core of young players who have surpassed expectations and gained valuable tournament experience. From a Netherlands point of view that, more than goalkeeping substitutions and the shredding of Spain, is his true legacy: the impression that the future might be a rosy shade of orange.
Poor Ron Vlaar
Perhaps it was another move of supposed tactical wizardry. Perhaps it was Louis van Gaal not knowing who should step up in the absence of Robin van Persie. But whatever the reason, the result remains the same. Center back Ron Vlaar was tipped for the first penalty - possibly the first competitive spot-kick he'd ever taken. His low, weak shot was easily saved by Sergio Romero, and after Wesley Sneijder saw his strike saved as well, the Dutch were out of the World Cup.
(Well ... after being forced to play a meaningless game to determine who gets to hold a third-place trophy, that is).
It was Sneijder's miss that ended Netherlands' dream of playing in their second consecutive World Cup final, but it was Vlaar's that was particularly heartbreaking. The Aston Villa defender was the best player on the pitch last night, tasked with mopping up any Argentina chances that managed to slip through the Dutch midfield.
Prior to the World Cup, many questioned just how far Netherlands could go when their defensive anchor was a man from one of the Premier League's poorest sides. Vlaar proved his doubters wrong throughout the tournament, but he particularly shone in last night's tactical, cagey battle. Simply watching was enough to tell you he was vital to keeping Argentina at bay, but in case you, say, nodded off for a bit, the numbers (from Squawka) demonstrate his importance: he completed 100% of his tackles while making eleven clearances and six interceptions -- including one particularly perfect sliding tackle to deny Lionel Messi.
The tragedy is that Vlaar's flawless performance through 120 minutes is destined to be forgotten in the wake of his terribly taken penalty. Such is life.