SAO PAULO – Four minutes of intense drama followed 120 minutes of stalemate on Wednesday, as Argentina booked its place in the World Cup final after surviving a thrilling penalty shootout against the Netherlands.
With the score locked at 0-0 after extra time, Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero was the hero, saving kicks from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder to take his country into the final for the first time since 1990.
Maxi Rodriguez converted the fourth and ultimately decisive penalty for Argentina and the Netherlands fell short again, having also lost on spot kicks in the 1998 semifinal while finishing as runners-up on three occasions.
Argentina will now meet Germany at the Maracana Stadium on Sunday in what will be an epic matchup between old rivals. It was successful as Diego Maradona led the team to the trophy in 1986, but fell short in 1990 with the Germans clinching the title.
"I believe Argentina is a top country, top players. We didn't lose to them," Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal said. "Penalty kicks are always a matter of luck"
"This was a very hard, very even match," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said.
"We had clearer possibilities to get a score," he added. "But it was probably a deserved result."
It was not the best of games and Argentina superstar Lionel Messi struggled to get going, but neither he, nor his country, will care much about that now. All it is worried about is regrouping for the biggest game of all.
With a minute of regulation to go, the Netherlands had its best chance and one of the best of the night. Arjen Robben did what he has done all tournament, but hadn’t been able to on this night, and skipped through the defense to bear down on goal. Just in time, Robben was denied as Javier Mascherano stuck out his boot with perfect timing to block the Dutchman’s attempt and ensure extra time.
In the additional 30 minutes, things opened up a little but not much. The best chance fell to Argentine substitute Rodrigo Palacio, who found himself chasing after a bouncing ball and clear on goal but made the unwise decision to head it instead of letting it drop. He could only aim his effort at goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.
And so to penalties it went. The Dutch had already survived the nailbiting format soccer uses to break its ties, outdueling Costa Rica in the quarterfinal with the help of some trash talking and fine saves from late sub Tim Krul.
Krul was not available this time, with coach Louis Van Gaal having already used up his full allocation of bench players.
Ron Vlaar, such a defensive hero for 120 minutes, missed with the first kick, with the Dutch complaining in vain that Argentina goalkeeper Romero had moved off his line, and early.
Messi struck home to give Argentina the advantage, and they would never let it slip. Robben scored for the Netherlands but so did Ezekiel Garay, and then Romero leapt to his right to further tighten the South Americans’ grip.
Sergio Aguero’s penalty was clutch, and after Dirk Kuyt merely delayed the inevitable, Rodriguez rifled the ball home to send his nation into delirium.
"At the very least, we were the equal team in the match, if not the better team," Van Gaal said. "That's the disappointment."