It will be difficult to escape Brazilian heartache as the World Cup progresses, especially considering the presence of great rivals Argentina in tonight’s second semi-final in Sao Paolo. Additionally, Lionel Messi is alive and kicking in this tournament, in contrast to how poster boy Neymar was roughed out of the reckoning.
It is down to the Netherlands to prevent a South American nation reaching the final, as the Dutch bid to claim their first ever crown. Before the tournament it was perhaps only the Germans and Spanish that posed a realistic threat to taking the famous trophy away from the shores of South America. Joachim Low has led his irrepressible side all the way to Sunday’s final while Spain of course spectacularly fell at the first hurdle, poignantly beaten 5-1 by the Netherlands.
It is Louis van Gaal’s team that are now in the position to set up a third consecutive all-European final, and a second successive appearance for the Oranje. Their chances may rest heavily on the fitness of captain Robin van Persie, who has been struggling with a stomach complaint. He has trained away from the rest of his teammates, perhaps as a precautionary measure to prevent any potential spread of disease.
The razor sharp edge the Manchester United striker can offer will be important to the Netherlands who must surely take their chances to overcome an Argentina side that boasts an in-form Messi. Not only does van Persie pose his own significant goal threat, but he also frees up space for one of the tournament’s star performers, Arjen Robben.
The Bayern Munich winger appears on a mission to avenge his misses in South Africa’s 2010 final, and reaching the showpiece against his adopted home at the Maracana would go some way towards redemption.
Standing in the path of the Dutch is an Argentinian outfit that seems to have another gear to hit following a series of narrow victories so far in Brazil. They have won each of their five games by just a single goal, and required extra time to see off Switzerland in the round of 16.
Messi has answered his critics through four consecutive man of the match performances, and his quest to be recognised as the greatest player the world has ever seen would be greatly enhanced by his participation in a World Cup final.
Inspiring Argentina to victory on Brazilian soil would rank up there with the kind of exploits that are required of the greats of the game. There can be little doubt of his greatness, but to eclipse Diego Maradona, Messi quite simply needs to lift the World Cup.
To do so he will require help, which will seemingly not be forthcoming from another of the tournament’s shining lights, Angel di Maria. After a stellar season for Real Madrid and an outstanding performance in the Champions League final, the winger-turned-midfielder has carried his excellent form into the summer, but has been cruelly struck down by a thigh strain. There will remain a chance of him making the final should his country make it, but Messi will have to rely on other members of his supporting cast.
Gonzalo Higuain will be boosted by his own man of the match performance against Belgium, while Sergio Aguero will feature having recovered from the hamstring injury he suffered in the group stages.
Both players could prove crucial to the outcome of tonight’s encounter, which will have huge bearings on both Messi’s status in the history books, and on the broken hearts of every Brazilian.