Calling the second semifinal of the 2014 FIFA World Cup between the Netherlands and Argentina in Sao Paulo attritional would be like describing the first last four match between Brazil and Germany as a basic run-of-the-mill, nothing extraordinary game. In 120 minutes of ridiculously tight, tactical, there is absolutely no way any team is going to score battle, Holland and Argentina cancelled each other out in the most sleep-inducing fashion.
In the knockout rounds that means the penalty shootout – glory for one team and misery for the other. This time, it proved to be ecstasy for Argentina, who thanks to some brilliant saves from Sergio Romero, got the better of the Netherlands 4-2 in the penalty shootout to give themselves that shot at the ultimate glory.
After 90 minutes plus 30 minutes of extra time saw no goals – and there never really looked like any team finding the back of the net, other than from the penalty shootout – the two teams galvanised themselves for the lottery, with Netherlands hoping to repeat the feat they managed so well against Costa Rica; but on a day when neither team did enough to earn their place in the final via normal circumstances, it was to be Argentina's turn at another tilt at the World Cup title.
Louis Van Gaal had the opportunity to use that magic dust again and keep Tim Krul, if needed, for the penalty shootout, but instead decided to make his final change by bringing on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar early in extra time. That meant Jasper Cillessen had to step up and make a few saves, but it was not to be as Argentina struck every single one of their penalties, with Netherlands faltering via the matchwinning hands of Romero.
With Van Persie substituted in extra time, it was Ron Vlaar, outstanding in defence for the Netherlands over the 120 minutes, who came to take up the first penalty, and the centre-back saw his spotkick comfortably saved by Sergio Romero.
Lionel Messi, of course he did, easily placed the ball into the net to give Argentina a 1-0 lead, while Holland's main man Arjen Robben, who, like Messi, was silenced for much of the game, made it 1-1.
While one central defender in Vlaar missed his penalty, Ezequiel Garay made no such mistake, giving Argentina a 2-1 lead, which only looked better after Romero made an outstanding diving save to his right to stop Wesley Sneijder.
Jasper Cillessen had to stop Sergio Aguero's spotkick to realistically keep his side in the game, but despite guessing the right way, the ball crept into the bottom corner, leaving Dirk Kuyt to extend the shootout by making it 3-2 in favour of Argentina. Substitute Maxi Rodriguez was given his moment to make a name for himself by firing the winning penalty, and he duly did to cue Argentinian delirium and Brazilian misery – it really will now be the ultimate nightmare for Brazil, if their bitter rivals lift the World Cup on their home soil.
It was a contest between two attacking sides, but also teams that have proven to be extremely adept at defending, and the match saw the latter win out hands down. Watching the first semifinal would have sent a few shivers down both team's spines, and expectedly neither team were quite ready to throw themselves forward in search of the early goal, wary of leaving themselves open on the counter-attack.
Argentina were the better side in the first half, looking a tad more proactive going forward, with most of their attacking players seeing plenty of the ball, even if without the final product.
Messi was involved in most of Argentina's attacks, but the closest the little wizard came to finding a way into goal was via a freekick, which he struck straight at Cillessen when a trademark chip over the wall and dip into the top corner looked on.
Enzo Perez did a really good imitation of Angel Di Maria, making those runs from midfield quite a few times, and even winning a few freekicks. However, like the other Argentina forward-thinking players, the final ball or finish kept eluding them as Holland looked quite comfortable at the back.
The Netherlands just could not get into the game from an attacking point of view, with the Argentina midfielders crowding them out every time they had the ball – Javier Mascherano, who was nearly knocked out after a clash of heads with Georginio Wijnaldum, yet again proving to be master of all he surveyed in his area.
Robben, one of the players of this World Cup, rarely saw the ball, while Van Persie and Sneijder, the playmaker so important to Netherland's fortunes, were also very much in the periphery. Argentina played Robben pretty smartly, not giving the forward any space to run into, while cutting out most avenues for a pass toward him, with the Dutchman having to come deeper and deeper to taste get involved.
The chance rate did not improve in the second half either, with Argentina, Messi, in particular, stifled and suffocated by the Dutch defence, with the introduction of Sergio Aguero and Rodrigo Palacio also unable to provide that extra cutting edge. Vlaar was immense for the Netherlands at the heart of the defence for Holland, while Mascherano was beyond supreme in his defensive midfield role.
Netherlands had the majority of the possession in the second half, but despite seeing plenty of the ball and more involvement from Robben, they could not quite penetrate through. The closest they came to scoring was right at the death, and the chance, inevitably fell to Robben, who looked nailed-on to find the net from close-range only for Mascherano, who else, to make the most outstanding last-ditch tackle/block you are ever likely to see.
Extra time it was and Louis Van Gaal, who had already made two substitutions by bringing on Daryl Janmaat and Jordy Clasie for Bruno Martins Indi and Nigel De Jong, who did make that miraculous recovery to last 60 minutes, decided to keep that Tim Krul inspiration as a one-off, making his final change of the game by taking off skipper Van Persie, who had another disappointing game, for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
It made little difference to the course of the match, however, as the Netherlands barely raised an eyebrow amongst the Argentina defence, while the South Americans, barring a presentable chance for Palacio, who headed straight at Cillessen from ten yards, did not break down that Oranje wall either.
The penalty shootout it had to be in this ridiculously tight encounter, with Romero and Rodriguez combining to send Argentina to the final at the Maracana against Germany, in a repeat of the 1990 final, which, interestingly, was the last time the South Americans reached the title clash of the World Cup.
For the Netherlands it is a feeling of what might have been and the third-place playoff against Brazil in Brasilia on Saturday.