Netherlands v Argentina
The pressure rises for both of these sides at this quarter-final stage. The Netherlands were much improved as they beat the USA 3-1, and Argentina look to be edging their way into the World Cup inspired by Lionel Messi.
These are two elite football nations with a long history in the competition: Argentina prevailed in 1978 to win their first World Cup final and then on penalties in the 2014 semi-final, while Dennis Bergkamp’s unforgettable moment of genius decided the 1998 quarter in the Europeans’ favour against the Albiceleste, who were reduced to 10 men when Ariel Ortega was sent off for violent conduct.
So far this tournament, the South Americans have relied on moments of Messi magic. A team of Argentina’s stature should probably have made lighter work of Australia in the last round, as their opponents created several good chances late into the game.
Louis van Gaal has been rigid with his tactics thus far, sticking with his 3-4-1-2 throughout the competition. Against the US, the Dutch sat off the American centre backs and pounced on loose balls to counter attack with devastating consequences. Van Gaal has admitted the style of football isn’t pretty to watch, but it is highly effective for progression in tournaments. His theory will be put to the test here against their toughest opposition since arriving in Qatar.
The key to the Netherlands progressing comes from another mistake-free game from his five defenders, and Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind having strong games offensively from wing-back positions. In attack, Cody Gakpo had his best all-round game against the US, next to Memphis Depay, who is so key to how the Netherlands can produce chances with guile on the break. Expect an almost unchanged line-up from van Gaal apart from a tweak or two in midfield.
Another nerve-wracking game which is almost too close to call can be expected on Friday, with Van Gaal hoping his side’s tactical discipline and prowess on the counter will be enough to see them through. The presence of an in-form Lionel Messi on the Argentina side just tips the balance in their favour, though, and another strong performance may prove crucial in their efforts to advance to the last four.
Timber committed three fouls as he looked to keep the USA at bay in the last 16. The Ajax defender is a combative player, who wins a lot of duels on the ground just in front of the defensive line. Van Gaal likes Timber in his back five as someone who is more technical yet still physical. Expect Timber to step up from the back line to try to win more duels again against a fired-up Argentina, which may lead to at least two fouls over the course of the game.
What could be the Netherlands’ undoing here is the inevitable Messi involvement. Whilst Argentina have hardly sparkled so far in this World Cup (the loss to Saudi Arabia in particular being a wake-up call), they have been able to see themselves past Poland and Mexico when they sat in a defensive shape. Messi waltzes around the pitch, selecting his moment to pounce. There are some great players around him in this team, but undoubtedly it’ll be Messi to be the one to come up with the goods on the biggest stage.
Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernandez has emerged as one of Argentina’s most reliable players this World Cup, excelling in both attack and defence to provide a formidable presence in the engine room.
With Netherlands likely to line up deep in their own half Fernandez will enjoy plenty of time on the ball, and he knows exactly how to use it. In his two starts so far in Qatar he has averaged more than 90 attempted passes over 90 minutes, and has a great chance to break that mark again on Friday.
Memphis is pivotal to what the Netherlands can create on the counter attack. Sometimes selfish, the Barcelona forward loves taking on defenders to get a shot away from a range of positions in and around the penalty area. Expect the Netherlands to sit in their deep shape again on Friday, but the pace and trickery on the counter attack will be their avenue to the next round. Occasionally, Memphis is wasteful, but it’s his brave choices that can lead to opportunities for the Dutch. He takes free-kicks, too.
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