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Jack: Van Gaal gets the shootout wrong this time around

Kristian Jack, TSN.ca
7/9/2014 9:07:00 PM
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We don't like penalty shootouts to end matches. That's what they tell us.

Play on until they score.

Argentina and Netherlands may still be playing until Sunday's final if that were the case.

It was a drab affair, arguably the worst game of the World Cup. With so much on the line, no team came close to proving why they deserved to win it.

Fittingly, the record books will show it as a draw: A stalemate in every sense of the word.

It was a chess match where both players didn't make moves for long stretches. Just when it looked like either of them could capture their queen, along came two of the best pawns on the board.

It was Javier Mascherano vs. Ron Vlaar. Both players were magnificent for their team but their standout performances said a lot about the opposition's weaknesses.

Argentina have been waiting for a player to step up to a level that Lionel Messi has been at during this World Cup, but on a night when their current captain didn't get close to that level, their former skipper stepped up with an absolutely immense performance.

Mascherano sat deep, allowed the defenders to play deep as well and flat out refused the Dutch any space in front of them. It forced their opponents to play long balls to try and get Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie into the match.

In possession, Mascherano was also excellent with distribution helping his side attack down the right and target Bruno Martins Indi.

Louis van Gaal reacted quickly at half-time by removing the Feyenoord man. That Argentina forced them into a move so quickly played a big part in how the game was played.

When Nigel De Jong, back after a thigh injury, had to come off in the second half, suddenly van Gaal only had one move left. A move he decided to use by removing the ineffective van Persie in extra time.

No one could argue that the Dutch team needed Klaas Jan Huntelaar but for a game that looked so destined for penalties, the removal of the Manchester United striker could be questioned.

What definitely needs to be questioned is the order of the penalty takers for the Dutch. It was clear that van Gaal wanted to keep as many of his players in the same spot as they were used in the shootout victory over Costa Rica.

That day the Dutch went four-for-four in order: van Persie, Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt. Huntelaar was the fifth taker but wasn't used.

Against Argentina, van Gaal looked at his team and knew the only one he had to replace was van Persie at number one. Every credit to Ron Vlaar, the Aston Villa player, to step up and replace van Persie in the shootout but making him the first shooter was the wrong decision.

In 24 previous World Cups the team that missed first lost 20 times. You cannot ask a player to take the first penalty in a key shootout when he wasn't even in your choice to be in the top five in the last shootout.

Vlaar had had a wonderful match. Argentina tried to force things wide but ultimately they were drawn back centrally and Vlaar, in the middle of the back three, won every tackle and aerial duel he went for. After 120 minutes, though, his job was not done.

Showing nerves, he stepped up quickly, from the prompt of the whistle, and it wasn't a good penalty. The moment Vlaar's effort was saved by Sergio Romero the momentum changed. Lionel Messi was the right choice for Argentina to take the first penalty and, to no one's surprise, he scored.

Messi had struggled throughout the game, which was the first World Cup game he has played when he didn't get a touch in the opponents' penalty area.

It was clear the Dutch had done their homework and their mandate was to shut down Messi. He will receive his fair share of criticism based on this performance but, once again, this match was another shining example of how much he needs his teammates to take him to glory.

The Barcelona man has carried Argentina to this stage, it is only fitting that some - in this case Romero, Mascherano and the rest of the shooters - helped carry him to the final.

They are, however, a team that arrives in the final with flaws. This is nothing new. Many teams have reached the World Cup Final when not playing very well but few have won it.

Argentina showed a lot of grit and fight in this semifinal, just like they did in the 120 minutes against Switzerland and the narrow 1-0 defeat over Belgium. However, despite their fight they do look very ordinary.

They arrive in the final after scoring just two goals in three knockout matches. The only team in World Cup history to do that was Argentina in 1990 and that was a terribly average side who frustrated Germany for over 80 minutes in arguably one of the worst games in football history.

No one will be hoping for a repeat on Sunday but I am sure it will cross Argentina's mind that they will be naive to think they can play an open, expansive game against Germany.

The Dutch end their quest to be world champions with their heads held high. They went further than most imagined and many of their young players, players produced by their own clubs in their own league, will grow and get better for this experience. Many will also find new clubs, too.

However, they will also reflect on just how close they were – once again – to getting over a significant hurdle on penalties. Van Gaal departs for Manchester United after a very good World Cup but ultimately his decision on the order of the takers had a massive impact on this result.




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