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Messi Leads Argentina To Semi Final

World Cup Diary: Quarter Finals, Brazil 1 Croatia 1 (Croatia win on penalties), Argentina 2 Netherlands 2 (Argentina win on pens). Brazil were rocked by Croatia as rivals Argentina and Lionel Messi triumphed in their penalty shoot-out with the Dutch.

By Dave Bowler

If you wanted a reminder of the truism that elite sport is played as much, maybe more, in the head than on the pitch, then today’s World Cup quarter-finals did the trick. Had logic prevailed, then Brazil would be preparing to take on the Netherlands in the semi-finals next week. But, as is so often the case, logic did not.

Brazil Beaten On Penalties By Croatia

Take the first game, Brazil against Croatia. For long periods, it had been a stultifying affair. Croatia, admittedly producing by far their best performance of the competition, had clearly concluded that their best hope of progress was most likely via penalties, and the best way to get there was to keep possession of the ball. This they did extremely well, as you would expect from such a technically capable outfit with such a gifted orchestrator as Modric. They did it with no real ambition, but it got them to extra-time with barely an alarm.

Finally though, Brazil had their moment. At the end of the first period of extra-time, Neymar received the ball 35 yards out, played a pass and drove at goal. Fatally, Modric stood and watched him go as the Brazilian played a one-two, rather than tracking his run. That enabled Neymar to play a second one, muscle his way through onto the return past, circumnavigate the goalkeeper and drive the ball into the roof of the net. A terrific goal.

And that’s when the brain fog descended. A second goal ends the game at that point, but they seemingly didn’t want it. In that second period, first through a corner, then through a free-kick in the opposition half, Brazil, a side built to score goals, chose not to put the ball into the area, but instead to try to run down the clock. Such muddle headedness brings with it similar confusion of the feet. They clumsily gave away possession, Modric set Croatia on their way and suddenly it was 1-1 and penalties after all.

Neymar Penalty Error

To compound the error, when it came to the spot kicks, incomprehensibly Brazil chose Neymar to take the fifth penalty, a penalty that never came thanks to the spectacular failings of his colleagues. Rule 1 of penalty shootouts is that the first penalty is always the most important, and you get your best taker on that job to set a positive tone in the shootout.

You do not let him feed his ego by taking what he fondly expects to be the winning one ten kicks down the line, because there’s every chance you won’t get there. Brazil didn’t.

They are now on their joint longest period without winning the trophy since they first lifted the World Cup, some 24 years. That first long, dry period came to an end when they won in 1994 in the USA, so now is a good time for you to get the best odds on them ending what will be a 24 year barren period in 2026. In the USA.

Dutch Fightback Ends In Tears

In the second game, both sides had their moments of potentially fatal stupidity. Going 2-0 up after 73 minutes, Argentina fell into the trap that so many sides find themselves in and simply stopped playing, looking to see out time – an especially bizarre tactic in a World Cup where eight, nine, ten minutes are routinely being added on, only extending the agony.

Invited to attack and with nothing to lose, the Dutch threw on taller and taller players, shoved the centre-backs up front and launched the kind of route one barrage we haven’t seen since Bobby Gould masterminded Wimbledon’s reenactments of the Dambusters’ raids. Argentina retreated further and further, played less and less, and eventually paid the price.

Weghorst gave the Dutch hope with a guided header but time gradually ticked away. But in the final seconds, the Netherlands produced one of the sublime moments of the competition, a fabulously worked free-kick full of guile and deceit that dummied the Argentine defence and most of the crowd before Wieghorst swept the ball in.

Messi Steps Up

Having got back in the game via that blitzkreig approach, you’d expect the Dutch to carry it into extra-time against a shell-shocked Argentina who were there for the taking. One more shove and they were gone. But no, the Netherlands returned to their ponderous build up from the back, passing largely aimlessly among themselves. With that, their advantage was gone.

Argentina regrouped in the first period of extra-time and in the second, they swarmed around the Dutch goal, now fully in command of the game again. They couldn’t quite find the winner, but the momentum had completely swung their way again, and they took that into the spot kicks.

Smarter than Brazil, Messi took their first – and scored. Coming after van Dijk had missed, that put Argentina in control and they never lost it. As seems to happen at every World Cup, the Dutch were out and left to lick yet another self inflicted wound…

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