Messi v Robben -- who will triumph?
HOLLAND v ARGENTINA
(Tomorrow, 4am, SingTel mio TV Ch 141, StarHub TV Ch 223 & MediaCorp okto)
Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben are the last mavericks standing.
They remain the torch bearers for a tournament whose flame is flickering.
In a World Cup defined by the individual, solo artists are becoming a dying breed in the knockout stages as anarchic impudence gives way to collective grunts, toil and sweat.
Inspiration was largely replaced by perspiration as the artisans pulled up their drawbridges and left the artists isolated.
But Messi and Robben could not be cowed.
Brazil hasn't witnessed many classic matches, certainly none since the group stages. This World Cup has been a series of moments, flashes of indescribable beauty from men of real substance; men like Messi and Robben.
They have carried their countries and elevated the tournament, guiding it to rarefied heights not reached since the high altitude of Mexico in 1986.
In the stifling heat of Brazil, they left audiences struggling to breathe.
Their artistry was second to their alchemy. Performing their field work in different locations, they inadvertently conspired to make the most addictive elixir; a potent potion that hypnotised audiences, drawing them towards TV screens, leaving them perched permanently on the edge of their seats.
These made men have made the World Cup.
As the two magicians prepare their stage acts in Sao Paulo, a video has been released online with a glorious sense of serendipity.
It's Messi's pass of the tournament. Filmed from a high vantage point, the bird's eye view replays his curved, perfectly weighted ball that slices through the Belgian defence before taking a dramatic right turn towards Angel di Maria's laces.
From such a lofty angle, the pass appears impossible. Di Maria's ghosted run is on Messi's blind side, obscured by retreating Belgians. But he somehow finds him; the thought process completed in milliseconds, the execution exquisite.
Messi had again crystalised his greatness in a single, spell-binding moment; another work of art to freeze-frame and hang in his burgeoning World Cup collection. Through the knockout stages, he has drip-fed us morsels of magic to sustain us through some tawdry, tentative affairs.
But Robben feasted along the right flank. He surged at every opportunity, a human wrecking ball charging at shivering skittles once known as fullbacks.
The sun ceaselessly tormented him in Fortaleza, burning through his bald scalp as he sailed through the Mexican wave of defensive reinforcements. The heat could not hinder him.
Against Costa Rica, he was the conduit for all things creative. An orange burst of effervescence, Robben assumed leadership responsibilities as Robin van Persie faltered. He was skipper in all but name.
Before extra time, he borrowed from the late Sir Alf Ramsey's copybook, forcing weary bodies to their feet, dismissing cramp as an inconvenience and gaining a psychological edge over the shattered Ticos.
He refuses to relent at this World Cup. He reminds younger players like Georginio Wijnaldum that submission is surrender. Physical pain eventually subsides, but the indignity of defeat tortures forever.
Robben speaks often of Euro 2008, when Holland were tipped for victory after beating France, Italy and Romania, only to succumb in the next round. He rattles Dutch skeletons almost as much as opposing fullbacks. He draws on his own suffering.
The Bayern Munich winger remains haunted by that spurned opportunity, one that offered a nation salvation but instead delivered personal shame; an unwanted stain on a largely unspoiled legacy.
Robben found himself with a chance to liberate the Dutch from their subservience to Europe's football masters by slipping the ball past Iker Casillas in the 2010 World Cup final. He failed and Spain prevailed.
The ghosts of tournaments past also taunt Messi. He was betrayed not by a mistake, but the mediocrity of others.
In South Africa, Diego Maradona's playing achievements screamed at him from every media source while Maradona's managerial incompetence shouted at him from the dugout. Four years on, Argentina's little genius continues to operate in the shadow of another.
But he's delivering. So is Robben.
The Dutch winger has three goals, the Argentine four. Robben has created 15 chances and contributed one assist; Messi carved out 19 and also has one assist.
There is little to choose between them. They are both sipping nervously at the last chance saloon.
Their respective tournaments, careers, lives and legacies are likely to be distilled into a single second. A moment is going to make or break them.
Both men have made Brazil 2014 an unqualified success and neither deserves to fail now. But sport is not a democracy. Romance titillates, but Darwinism dictates. It's survival of the finest.
Maradona and Johan Cruyff are waiting to embrace them at the gates of the World Cup pantheon. But membership is restricted.
There is only room for one.
BY THE NUMBERS
While Argentina have won the World Cup twice (1978 and 1986), the Dutch are perennial underachievers in the tournament having reached three finals but coming away empty-handed each time (1974, 1978 and 2010).
ARJEN ROBBEN V MARCOS ROJO
Now 30, Robben remains one of the most dangerous wingers in the game, the Bayern Munich man having always maintained his terrifying pace on the ball.
Robben loves to cut inside from the right flank onto his left foot, a move that has seen him score countless important goals throughout his career.
Fifa's statistics show that he has made a total of 17 solo dribbles into the opposition area, nine more than any other player. For Argentina, Rojo is available again after suspension and seems certain to return at left back in place of Jose Maria Basanta.
Rojo has been arguably Argentina's best defender at the competition, but he has not yet come up against an opponent of Robben's quality.
THE DUTCH DEFENCE V LIONEL MESSI
The injury suffered by angel Di Maria in the win over Belgium is a big blow to Argentina, who will miss his threat coming forward from midfield.
Nevertheless, as long as Messi is available, Sabella's side should not need to worry too much. Louis van Gaal has favoured a three-man central defence and, if he sticks with that system, the Dutch should have the numbers to cope with Messi as well as Gonzalo Higuain and whoever else lines up in attack for Argentina.
However, they lack a world class centre back and the absence of the injured Nigel de Jong deprives the Dutch of much-needed bite deep in midfield.
Bruno Martins Indi could step forward into that role, or Daley Blind could play there. Whoever it is will have their hands full with Messi.
- PREVIOUS WORLD CUP MEETINGS:
Four meetings - Holland winning two, Argentina one, in the 1978 final, and one draw.
- PENALTY SHOOT-OUT RECORD:
Holland - one loss (Brazil, semi-finals, 1998) and one win (Costa Rica, quarter-finals, 2014).
Argentina - three wins (Yugoslavia, quarter-finals, 1990; italy, semi-finals, 1990; england, second round, 1998) and one loss (germany, quarter-finals, 2006).
'Dutch Messi' Robben ready for Argentina
PHOTOS: AFP, ACTION IMAGES
Former Holland coach Bert van Marwijk is betting on Arjen Robben to outshine Lionel Messi as the Dutch prepare to take on Argentina for a place in the World Cup final tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
The diving controversies which have shrouded Robben's campaign in Brazil cannot mask the fact that the Bayern Munich star has been Holland's most consistently effective attacker.
And that leaves van Marwijk confident that the Dutch are holding the trump card heading into the battle with Messi and Argentina in Sao Paulo.
"Argentina have got Messi, we've got Robben. And, quite frankly, I think the better player is Arjen," said van Marwijk, Holland's coach at the last World Cup in South Africa four years ago.
"When I see how Robben is playing in this tournament, I have to admit I'm a little bit jealous. There's a big difference to 2010," van Marwijk said.
"Four years ago, Arjen was injured just before the start of the tournament in a friendly against Hungary.
"He was carrying the injury for the whole tournament and was never really 100 per cent. But, this year, he's been unstoppable."
Van Marwijk believes a fully fit and firing Robben might just have made the difference between winning and losing the 2010 final against Spain.
Robben remains haunted by his failure to convert a glorious chance in the final, when he was denied by Iker Casillas after being put clean through on the Spanish goal in normal time.
"It is part of sport, just a moment, a snapshot," said Robben.
"But it will be part of me and part of my career for all of my life."
CUP A REALITY
But with Robben in his current form, many believe that the Dutch can dream of winning the World Cup after three previous defeats in the final.
Former international and current coach of PSV Eindhoven Philipp Cocu says that the 30-year-old is "in the form of his life".
"With him in the team, there is no reason to fear Argentina. We certainly have as much quality as the South Americans," Cocu said.
"When I see the way Arjen was sprinting in the final minutes against Costa Rica... it's incredible."
The veteran is also valued for his leadership on and off the pitch.
"When we had the drinks break in the second half against Mexico, it was Arjen who took responsibility to get everyone going, to rally morale," Hollland coach Louis van Gaal revealed. - AFP.
I can't see this game being anything other than a shoot-out between Arjen Robben and Lionel Messi. The rest are supporting actors, really... both Holland and Argentina have great centre forwards in Higuain and van Persie. But the real match winners are Messi and Robben.
- Paul Scholes on the semi-final tie between Holland and Argentina