THE DAY REPLAYED - As the stakes continue to rise at Brazil 2014, so too does the tension. The pressure being endured by the remaining teams was certainly evident in today's concluding quarter-finals, neither of which will feature on any compilations of FIFA World Cup™ classics.
In such circumstances, with the football gritty rather than glorious, the art of getting the job done is what separates winners from also-rans. And just as Germany and Brazil had shown the strength and staying power necessary to hold off France and Colombia, so Argentina and the Netherlands proved impressively adept at keeping their nerve.
Neither Belgium nor Costa Rica made it easy, but the end result of two narrow victories is that La Albiceleste are in the semi-finals for the first time since 1990, and the Dutch remain unbeaten in competitive matches under Louis van Gaal. Nor should it be forgotten that fortune favoured the brave in these last-eight duels, with attacking endeavour rewarded and Van Gaal rewarded for the boldest of substitutions.
Argentina 1-0 Belgium (Budweiser Man of the Match: Gonzalo Higuain, ARG)
Netherlands 0-0 Costa Rica AET, 4-3 PSO (Budweiser Man of the Match: Keylor Navas, CRC)
A lesson in efficiency
Argentina today racked up a fifth successive win at Brazil 2014, equalling their best-ever run at the World Cup. But while this current streak is equal to that enjoyed by the Diego Maradona-inspired world champions of 1986, the manner of La Albiceleste's progress has been economical rather than extraordinary. All five of their wins have been by a single-goal margin, and while Lionel Messi has dazzled in flashes, it is arguably the team's much-maligned defence - highlighted as a key weakness before the tournament - that has done most to underpin their success thus far. Today's clean sheet was, after all, their third in five matches, and no other team at the tournament has more.
Higuain joins legends, stuns Sabella
Gonzalo Higuain went into today's quarter-final under scrutiny, having failed to score in each of his previous five World Cup outings. Focusing on this drought, however, failed to take into account that the Argentina centre-forward had scored four times in his first three appearances at this tournament. Consequently, his excellent, instinctive early effort - half-volleyed home on the turn - took Higuain on to five World Cup goals, level with Lionel Messi and just behind Albiceleste icons Mario Kempes (6), Maradona and Guillermo Stabile (both 8) and Gabriel Batistuta (10) on the all-time list. The Napoli star looked set to climb that ladder further in the second half, but a thrilling solo run culminated in a shot that clipped the bar on its way over. The miss was so dramatic that it prompted a comedic tumble from his coach, with Alejandro Sabella losing his balance and staggering towards the dugout as he tilted back in exasperation.
Krul gamble pays off
Before tonight, the Netherlands' No1 keeper, Jasper Cillesen, had faced 16 penalties - and all 16 had been scored. Costa Rica, meanwhile, had found the net with every one of their five spot-kicks in a near-flawless shootout against Greece. Louis van Gaal looked at those odds, didn't like what he saw, and threw on penalty specialist Tim Krul on as a 121st-minute substitute. It was the first time in World Cup history that a keeper had been brought on for the purposes of a shootout, and the gamble paid off in style. The Newcastle United man saved brilliantly on two occasions - first from Bryan Ruiz, then from Michael Umana - as the Dutch survived going to extra time for the first time in five attempts. Van Gaal's team also ended a run of nine straight shootout wins for the team taking the first penalty.
Sneijder, Robben lead by example
Wesley Sneijder set a new national record tonight by making his 16th World Cup appearance, but it looked like it could be an occasion to forget for the Dutch midfielder. Twice he hit the woodwork with fantastic long-range efforts - the first player to do so a single match since Frank Lampard against Germany in 2010. With Costa Rica surviving similar scares, it appeared his and the Netherlands' luck could be out. Sneijder, though, kept his cool to dispatch an inch-perfect penalty, and so too did Arjen Robben. The tireless and in-form winger had delivered an impassioned speech to his team-mates ahead of extra time, with Van Gaal nodding in approval, and continued his remarkable tournament with a spot-kick every bit as impressive as Sneijder's.
3 - The number of shots on target in Argentina's 1-0 win over Belgium: two from the victors, one from the losers. This represented the lowest tally in any FIFA World Cup knockout match since a match that evoked very different Albiceleste emotions: the Final of Italy 1990.
Queríamos darles las semifinales pero les dimos algo más grande: Orgullo y amor por la camiseta #CRC
— Cristian Gamboa (@Cris_GamboaCR) julio 5, 2014
"We wanted to give everyone back home the semi-finals, but we gave them something bigger: pride in and love for this shirt," Cristian Gamboa, Costa Rica.
Brazil-Germany, 8 July 2014, 17.00, Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte
Argentina- Netherlands, 9 July 2014, 17.00, Arena de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo
(All times local)
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