SAO PAULO – Semi-final: Argentina 0, Holland 0 (after extra time: Argentina 4-2 on penalties)

—- Brazil may have been in mourning for its own football but the hosts’ dramatic exit from the World Cup enhanced the sense of destiny for southern neighbours Argentina as they beat Holland in a shootout after a grinding stalemate over two draining hours.

Facing Germany, even a superb Germany, in the final will not be as daunting as had been the prospect of confronting the Brazilians hosts with a fan base of 200m roaring them on in Maracana.

Argentina's fans: Believers in Brazil

The route to Felipao’s football “heaven” was opened up for Argentina rather than Brazil by keeper Sergio Romero who made two fine shootout saves from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder.

Destiny calls, then, for Leo Messi, without any shadow of a doubt the finest individual player remaining in these finals and, in terms of natural talent, the one most deserving of World Cup reward.

Anchor role

Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal welcomed back fit-again Nigel De Jong to the midfield anchor role while captain Robin Van Persie defied the after-effects of a virus.

No explosive start tonight. This semi-final reverted to the more traditional pattern of two contrasting teams testing each other out. Sneijder contributed the first goal effort, a snap shot which flew safely wide, then Messi rifled a free kick through the defensive wall only for Jasper Cillessen to clasp the ball safely as he fell to his right.

Argentina had far more of the possession and showed the greater positive attitude. Holland appeared content to soak up pressure and rely on counter-attacks. This might have been credible if Arjen Robben and Van Persie had ever threatened on the break but in the first half they never found an inch of space.

Holland replaced the booked Bruno Martins Indi with rightback Daryl Janmaat at half-time and reshuffled but without immediate obvious effect. De Jong had to be replaced as well as the two teams continued to stifle each other in one tangled map of footballing cul de sacs.

Only one chance was prised open in either defence: in the first minute of stoppage time Robben found a thin gap on the left but delayed his shot a fatal split-second too long and was foiled by a magnificent defending tackle by Javier Mascherano. The ball flew out for a corner and, within seconds, the semi-final went into extra time.

Test of stamina

But Robben’s break appeared significant. The longer the duel continued the stronger the Dutch became or, perhaps, the more the Argentinians began to fade. This was remarkable considering that Holland had enjoyed one day fewer to prepare since their stamina-draining shootout victory over Costa Rica.

In the closing stages of extra time, however, the pitch battle turned again and the only two openings fell to Argentina.

First Rodrigo Palacio, off balance, popped a weak header directly into the hands of Cillessen then Messi wriggled to the right-wing byline and crossed perfectly, only for newly-arrived substitute Maxi Rodriguez to miss-hit his shot into the turf.

So to penalties, for the first time in the semi-finals since Holland lost to Brazil in France in 1998, and after the first goalless semi-final in World Cup history.

No Tim Krul this time to save Holland; Van Gaal had used his three substitutes and had to rely on Cillessen who had never saved a penalty in his first-class career.

Thus the fates came full circle for sub Rodriguez. He had converted his penalty when Argentina lost a quarter-final shootout to Germany in 2006; he had missed the last chance of this game. Now, at 3-2 in the shootout, the decisive kick was his.

Into the net it went: 4-2 to Argentina and Maracana beckoned.

Penalty shootout

(Holland first)

Vlaar saved 0-0; Messi 0-1

Robben 1-1; Garay 1-2

Sneijder saved 1-2;  Aguero 1-3

Kuyt 2-3; Maxi Rodriguez 2-4