SAO PAULO, Brazil—Lionel Messi finally got what he wanted: the best player in the world is going to play in his sport’s biggest game.
And this time he owes that more to his teammates than his own individual brilliance after Argentina won a penalty-kick shootout with the Netherlands to advance to Sunday’s World Cup final against Germany in Rio de Janeiro.
The Dutch, who won their quarterfinal game with Costa Rica on penalty kicks, meets Brazil on Saturday in Brasilia in the third-place game.
After playing 120 minutes to a scoreless draw, the Argentines came alive in the shootout, winning 4-2 with Messi getting things started. Ezequiel Garay, Sergio Aguero and Maxi Rodriguez followed, all making their shots against Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen.
Cillessen was replaced by backup keeper Tom Kurl just ahead of the penalty kicks in the Netherlands’ victory over Costa Rica. But he was forced to stay in the game this time when the Dutch used their three substitutions for field players.
Argentina’s unsung keeper, Sergio Romero, also came up huge with saves on shots by Ron Vlaar on the first penalty kick and Wesley Sneijder in the third round.
The Netherlands were seeking a return to the final, where it lost to Spain in extra time four years ago in South Africa. Meanwhile, nobody on Argentina’s team was out of grade school the last time its national team played for the World Cup title in 1990.
And Messi hadn’t even been born when Argentina and Maradona gave the country its last championship in 1986.
Neither team attacked as if they wanted to win, though. Both sides were tenative in the dead-even first half, probing for weaknesses like two heavyweights in the early rounds of a title fight. That’s the way both teams have played in the knockout round, though, with the Dutch scoring just once from the run-of-play in its last two games while Argentina hasn’t won any game in this tournament by more than one goal.
The Dutch may also have been a bit fatigued and lacking for confidence after taking 20 shots but failing to score in an overtime draw in Costa Rica its last time out. (The Netherlands advanvced that time on penalty kicks.)
Argentina was also hurt by the loss of injured midfielder Angel Di Maria, the spark that makes it offense go. That allowed the Dutch to collapse around Messi, making him a nonfactor for long stretches of the game.
Still, Argentina nearly won the game outright in the second overtime when Rodrigo Palacio got behind the defense, took a little chip pass and tried to head it home. But his shot was snatched out of the air by Cillessen. Seconds later a Messi crossed was volleyed into the ground by Rodriguez but Cillessen played it nicely on the hop.
The first good scoring chance of the game came in the 14th minute on a wicked left-footed free kick by Messi from just outside the 18-yard box. The low shot made it through the wall toward the far post but it didn’t fool Cillessen, who pulled the ball to his chest with both arms as he fell to the turf.
About 10 minutes later Garay, moving forward from defense, mis-hit a diving header, knocking it over the cross bar while taking a boot to the face for his troubles.
The best two Dutch tries of the first half—on a corner and then an attempted header by defender Stefan de Vrij—came seconds apart late in the half and both were punched away by Romero.
Yet despite the presence of forwards Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben—both of whom have multiple goals in this tournament—and Sneijder, a dangerous midfielder who helped the Netherlands put up a World Cup-high 10 goals in group play, the Dutch seemed content to cautiously drop numbers behind the ball most of the night,
The pace picked up only slightly in the second half, when a steady rain began to fall and the wind chill dipped.
Gonzalo Higuain came within inches of giving Argentina the lead in the 75th minute, sliding into the six-yard box and deflecting a cross with a raised foot. But the ball found only the side of the net.
Robben had the most dangerous Dutch shot, dribbling deep into the area as the final seconds of regulation ticked off. But as he turned to shoot, a sliding tackle by Javier Mascherano knocked the ball away.
Another dangerous Robben shot from distance in the first 15-minute overtime skipped off the grass before dying in Romero’s midsection.