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FIFA World Cup: Argentina vs. Netherlands Match Preview

One finalist is known after Germany's demolition of Brazil. The other finalist is defined today, as Lionel Messi's Argentina take on Arjen Robben's Netherlands.

Jamie Squire

This may be the most important game in Lionel Messi's life. Really think about that for a second. All the goals we've witnessed, all the magic... but the games that may truly define his career are the next two.

Unfair, maybe. He's been beyond brilliant for years and cannot be judged on two games. Ridiculous, even. But it may be remembered that way.

For what it's worth, I say "may" because who knows what the future brings. And arguably, he's done enough, carrying Argentina almost by himself through large part of the tournament. Still, there is the distinct possibility that these two remaining games could settle the reputation of the world's best player ... of all time.

Think about that for a bit. OK? OK.

Argentina come into this match with a mixed feeling. On the one hand, Alejandro Sabella's key strategy has paid dividends. He chose individuals who would buy into his system, work hard for him and for each other, and above all, work well with his best player: Messi.

He sacrificed significant starpower to this end, Carlos Tevez most notably. But it paid off in a resolute, unified, intelligent and professional team. They have not conceded a goal in the knockout stages, they've yet to trail in the tournament, and they kept 3 clean sheets.

The downside is the team has never looked spectacular, and there's significantly less chance of that now that Angel Di Maria is hurt.

Di Maria was the main source of creativity beyond the main man himself, and without him, Argentina will miss an X factor. His return remains a possibility for the final, should the Albiceleste make it, but he is definitely out against the Dutch.

Enzo Perez, who made his first appearance against Belgium as his replacement, could be in the lineup instead. Perez was at one point considered an attacking midfield player but has truly shone as a box-to-box. He is very solid, but lags by a mile in the flash department compared to what Di Maria brings.

The other alternative would be Maxi Rodriguez. A veteran, he is probably more creative but he lacks Perez's defensive capabilities and workrate.

This only heightens the load on Messi to create everything. That's fine as long as Gonzalo Higuain puts away chances, something he has not done this tournament up until the previous game. He was pretty good in that last game, though; besides scoring the lone goal, he seemed a danger throughout. The feeling is his confidence is back, and it couldn't be at a better time.

One small benefit of not having Di Maria out is not having the Real Madrid man simply lose too many balls. Whether it was a misplaced pass, cross, or shot, or whether he simply was tackled, Di Maria lost the ball more than any other player on any team in the World Cup.

Perez will be much more dependable, but again, won't create nearly as much. Ricky Alvarez could be a useful sub to introduce some creative responsibility.

Sergio Aguero could be fit enough to start, but I think Sabella will prefer a more fit, more hard-working player in that spot. Ezequiel Lavezzi is still far from clinical and makes suspect decisions, but he has speed and tenacity.

Lucas Biglia and Martin Demichelis, who did a fine job supplanting Fernando Gago and Fede Fernandez, will likely retain their starting spots.

Surely, Sabella will be thinking about how to stop Arjen Robben. The winger has been the Netherlands' #1 source of attack and has frequently beat players even when double-teamed through sheer speed. For this reason, Lavezzi will be tasked to help defend him if the Argentine does indeed play.

Costa Rica, despite their limited resources, did a decent job on Robben. The strategy was basic: double-mark him and show him onto his weaker foot. If he gets past you, foul him. Argentina will probably replicate these tactics to an extent.

Marcos Rojo will be a welcome sight again on the left flank of defense. The fullback had been one of Argentina's standout performers but was suspended against Belgium for yellow card accumulation.

If Robben plays on the right, Rojo will be primarily responsible. It will be intriguing to see how much help he will get, and from who.

One last alternative for Sabella would be to play both Rojo and his replacement against Belgium, Jose Maria Basanta, in a tandem. This could mean a return to the 5-3-2. Argentina only used it for the opening 45 minutes of the cup, where it was not entirely effective, but it's not out of the question. Basanta, who did a good job in Rojo's spot, could then play as part of the back 3 and the duo would naturally mark Robben.

Louis van Gaal has been extremely willing to make changes to his tactics and personnel when required and there is a sense of mystery in how they play.

Most likely, the Dutch will try to play on the counter. Argentina, despite being known for their counterattack, have had more possession than any team in the tournament except for Spain. (Even then, it's only 0.01% difference according to, a number so insignificant it's basically meaningless.)

Still, against Belgium, they had only 46% of the ball. So how the game flows could depend on a host of factors rather than depend on a set strategy.

The key question becomes: how many players will the Dutch commit to Messi? It will be some heavy marking, especially without Di Maria. Then the question shifts to: can Messi wriggle free? And if he can, can his teammates exploit the space left behind? Can they finish the chances?

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