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  • Writer's pictureBruno Asoka

Messi's dream continues as Oranje is cast out on penalties

By directly contributing to both of Argentina's goals against the Netherlands, Lionel Messi motivated his team to victory and set up a matchup with Croatia in the FIFA World Cup (WC) Semifinal.

Louis van Gaal was in charge of the Netherlands the last time these two sides played in the 2014 WC Semi-Finals, losing on penalties following a goalless draw, and given the unremarkable start to proceedings here, another shoot-out looked entirely probable. Since entering the Dutch goalie position, Andries Noppert has appeared confident, but his early hazardous pass briefly sparked anxiety.

With halftime drawing near, Lionel Scaloni made adjustments to Argentina's style to add wing-backs for the first time this World Cup, closely mirroring their opponents. In the final third, Messi received the ball and sent a flawless no-look pass to right winger Nahuel Molina, who tapped low past Noppert. A flurry of yellow cards kept the stadium announcer busy in the waning seconds of the half, but Albiceleste's goalie Emiliano Martínez saw no action.

Argentina looked comparatively at ease as they held the Dutch to just one off-target shot before the hour mark with their 12th HT lead in 14 games this year. The game gradually opened up as Van Gaal's team ran out of time as the Netherlands grew less defensive, giving Argentina opportunities to counter. Messi, who never fails to excite a crowd, won a free kick on the edge of the area, and his ensuing shot just missed the goal.

The Netherlands had offered precious little in attack, and with less than 20 minutes of regulation time remaining, the contest appeared to be over. Marcos Acuña had produced an energetic display up to this point, and his chop-back enticed Denzel Dumfries into an ill-advised challenge, giving referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz no choice but to award a penalty. Unfazed, Messi stepped up to make it 2-0, leaving Noppert rooted and taking his 2022 WC tally to four.

Despite needing a miracle, the Netherlands managed to score with their first shot on goal when substitute Wout Weghorst headed in a cross from Steven Berghuis, much like Croatia did in the earlier kickoff. Unbelievably, a tense stoppage-time session eventually resulted in a jaw-dropping last-second equalizer as Weghorst swept in his second after Teun Koopmeiners' creative free-kick routine.

A 14th yellow card was displayed during a tense and cautious 30 minutes of extra time, bringing to mind the memorable Battle of Nuremberg, in which the Netherlands were ultimately eliminated from the World Cup. The post saved Enzo Fernández from scoring in the last seconds, bringing the game to a penalty shootout. Van Gaal's team survived the late barrage of Argentine opportunities.

Argentina was in the lead after two saves from Martínez before Fernández wasted the opportunity to win the match. To bury the crucial penalty kick and advance Argentina to the semi-finals, where they will face Croatia for the first time since their 3-0 defeat in the 2018 World Cup group stage, Lautaro Martínez stepped up to score the winning pen.

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