Reda Maher

Brazil 360: Epic Sao Paulo dirge leaves Germany favourites for World Cup

Reda Maher

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What can you say about a match like that?

Some of the finest attacking talent in the world and – in one case, history – was on show in Sao Paulo, but Ron Vlaar was the man of the match, and now we all support Germany.

Vlaar is a decent stopper for sure, but no Mats Hummels, and certainly no Fabio Cannavaro, whose composure led Italy to World Cup glory in 2006. Aston Villa fans will no doubt agree he is a limited player.

It was a sad irony that Vlaar should miss the first penalty of the shoot-out. Louis van Gaal got the mental edge over Costa Rica in the Netherlands’ previous experience of football’s Russian roulette, but next week’s Manchester United boss was forced to keep Tim Krul on the bench this time.

But enough of the penalties, where Argentina kept their collective nerve and the Dutch reverted to type. Not even master-psych Van Gaal could get them through this one.

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Were Lionel Messi and co paralysed by fear? Were both defences simply so well organised that not even a front three of Messi, Ronaldo and Robbie Williams’ mate off the telly could have found a way through?

Certainly defensive players stole the show, with Vlaar, Dirk Kuyt (a wing-back these days), Ezequiel Garay and Javier Mascherano the best players on the park.

But, from the conservatism of the Dutch to the plodding nature of Argentina’s attacking play, neither side went all-out to win the match, although both coaches did throw on attackers as their final changes.

With the backing they had, the onus was on Argentina to take the game to the Dutch, but they failed, Messi anonymous, the rest also.

One of the defining points of this World Cup has been the sea of gold and sometimes blue in the crowd of every match, with Brazilians buying nearly two thirds of all tickets.

But the home fans were conspicuous by their absence on Wednesday, with many electing to wear civvies or club colours, and – judging by the number of Argentines in the crowd – a fair few flogging their tickets following Brazil’s humiliation at the hands of Germany the night before.

The Argentine anthem is deemed too long and ponderous for sporting events, so an abbreviated instrumental version is played instead, an odd affair as you can imagine; however, the fans’ own, Maradona-related chants act as de facto songs of national pride, and they echoed through the vast Arena Sao Paulo, in spite of the gaping holes in its incomplete architecture. The Brazilian contingent’s rendition of ‘Mil Gols’ (a reminder that Pele had a line in goals, while Maradona had a goal in lines) was boisterous enough, if occasionally drowned out by the jeers of the Argentines. This was as close to a home game as any guest would get at this World Cup.

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It would be unfair to define the three subsequent matches at this World Cup in context to the Mineirazo but history has a way of marking the future. Could anyone possibly beat Germany in the final? Would they too need to make a statement if they were to have any hope of matching Joachim Loew’s irrepressible team, a team which put seven past the hosts?

Of course not, but these are the conversations people have after witnessing such a one-sided destruction. And, in that context, neither of these guys have a chance.

Fans of matches boasting similar sides going toe-to-toe in the hunt for glory were given more to chew on, in terms of competitiveness; alas there was a notable lack of incisive quality, partly down to both teams displaying more effective defensive units than Brazil could cough up in Belo Horizonte, but mostly due to blunt attacking play.

Just before the half-hour Jasper Cillessen drew a cheer by coolly turning Gonzalo Higuain in his own penalty area; by that point on Tuesday, Germany were five goals up. No such joy here, with the most cutting attacks coming from the Argentine fans, by now berating locals with mass chants of “Siete! Siete”, in reference to… oh, you know what I mean.

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Argentina boss Sabella comforts Messi after a poor game

At least it was competitive, challenges flying in, the odd late tread, a few clashes of heads and all that blood-and-thunder we love. Or do we? A grinding first half was typified by a Dutch free-kick which, when cleared, could and should have been returned into the penalty area: instead, the ball ended up back with Cillessen, to groans from fans of all persuasions.

Half-time couldn’t come any sooner, a dire display greeted with, well, a shrug.

At least neither side would be rolled over by the Germans. But, whenever Messi or the similarly disappointing Arjen Robben found space to run with the ball, that space was gobbled up before you can say “he tripped me, ref!”.

Van Gaal, the master of the bold move, made an unusual half-time change, taking off faintly kamikaze centre-half Bruno Martins Indi for right-back Daryl Janmaat. But a back three was retained, with Kuyt shifted wide left, albeit with a more attacking brief.

While the Dutch were on the front foot, both were still cancelling each other out. The game needed a moment of brilliance to cut through the chilly night.

But one of the biggest cheers came for Vlaar, whose fine challenge on Messi was greeted a roar of delight by fans of ‘proper’ football. To compound matters, it was now tipping it down, akin to a wet Wednesday in Stoke. Right conditions, right day, right starting letter, wrong night.

Vlaar – criticised during his time at Aston Vila – was being lionised by Twitter heatmaps; Argentina songs quietened a touch; no-one could even be bothered to start a Mexican wave.

There was a brief flutter when Robben instigated a move that saw Janmaat’s cross acrobatically flicked over by Robin van Persie, but the flag was up, the Manchester United striker – whose stomach seemed perfectly limber as he contorted his body – offside. Seconds later Argentina thought they had scored, but Higuain was also offside.

Someone needed to be brave. Van Gaal, exiting for Manchester United after this tournament, had nothing to lose, but he remained cautious; instead it was Alejandro Sabella who took the gamble, throwing on Rodrigo Palacio and Sergio Aguero in an audacious double change.

But it was the Dutch who nearly snatched it at the death, Robben denied by Mascherano’s sliding block. Injury time saw the men in orange press further, begging the question – where were they all match, and why wait this long to unleash Robben?

Extra-time it was. That late flurry made things all the more frustrating. And Van Gaal’s reluctance to use either Klaas-Jan Huntelaar or Memphis Delay appeared terminal – with penalties on the cards, he would surely retain Tim Krul for the shoot-out, as he had done to such effect against Costa Rica?

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No. Van Gaal was forced to use his wild card, throwing on Schalke striker Huntelaar for Van Persie, who could run no more. There would be no Krul – Cillissen would be trusted in the event of penalties.

All elements of the crowd initially seemed buoyed by the move, the Argentines finding their voice after being somewhat mute for a good half an hour or so.

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Messi after the shoot-out win - but he must improve against Germany

A tepid first 15 minutes followed, penalties apparently the accepted détente – although in the second period of extra-time Cillissen again wowed the crowd by turning an Argentina striker expertly, this time Aguero, replacement of previous victim Higuain, sold the dummy.

There was a late chance for Palacio to steal the show, but the ludicrously coiffed Inter Milan striker headed weakly at Cillissen when put clean through. And then Maxi Rodriguez – introduced, one assumes, for his experience – mis-hit a volley into the turf. Which just about summed it up.

Penalties are a cruel way to decide big matches but, frankly, neither side deserved the honour of facing the effervescent Germany on Sunday.

With the exception of die-hard Messi fans (and probably the Dutch), most will be supporting Germany in the final, with Joachim Loew’s side having won hearts and minds with their wonderful demolition of Brazil.

Germany are the best team and, man-for-man bar Messi and Aguero, have better players than Argentina, although the Barcelona star is some 'joker' to have up one's sleeve.

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Argentina don't even have their best manager in charge, with Diego Simeone and Marcelo Bielsa in club football; they arguably don't even have the best Argentine coach at this World Cup, as Colombia fans will insist.

Argentina have barely got by at this World Cup – their best performance arguably came against Nigeria in the group stages – and, having benefited from a relatively mild draw, they will hope for a more impressive showing in the final.

Because the Germans will not be nearly as forgiving.

Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport
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