Argentina beat the Netherlands 4-3 in a penalty shootout to keep Lionel Messi’s World Cup dream alive on Friday after the Dutch had snatched a 2-2 draw from the jaws of defeat in an extraordinary quarter-final.
Emiliano Martinez saved the first two Dutch penalties to give Argentina a huge advantage and Lautaro Martinez sent Andries Noppert the wrong way to set up a date for the South Americans with Croatia in the semi-finals on Tuesday.
Messi celebrated with arms aloft in front of the massed ranks of Argentina fans, his hopes of securing football’s biggest prize at the fifth attempt intact for a few more days.
“Argentina are among the four best in the world because they show that they know how to play every game with the same desire and the same intensity,” said the seven-times Ballon D’or winner.
“A lot of joy, a lot of happiness. We didn’t have to go to extra time or penalties, we had to suffer. But we got through and it’s impressive.”
A third bench-clearing brawl of the match was the backdrop to Messi’s celebrations as some of the Dutch players, distraught after coming so close to one of the greatest comebacks in World Cup history, clashed with their Argentine rivals.
A total of 16 yellow cards were shown throughout the contest by Spanish referee Antonio Mateu and Dutch wingback Denzel Dumfries was sent off after the final whistle for his part in the final brawl.
Apparently on their way home at 2-0 down with only seven minutes of normal time remaining, the Dutch had scored twice through substitute Wout Weghorst to send the match to two scoreless periods of extra time.
Messi, almost inevitably, had played a major role in giving Argentina their lead.
While it was Nahuel Molina’s goal that put Argentina ahead in the 35th minute, it was Messi who unlocked a suffocating Dutch defence that had snuffed out any previous chances.
Taking the ball 40 metres out, the 35-year-old ghosted to his left in front of a wall of markers before sliding a pass back to the right to Molina on the edge of the box.
The wingback took a touch and poked the ball past onrushing goalkeeper Andries Noppert to send the vast majority of the 88,235 crowd at Lusail Stadium into paroxysms of delight.
There was more delirium for the Albiceleste faithful in the 73rd minute when Messi slapped a penalty kick in the right midriff of the net after Dumfries had fouled Marcos Acuna on the edge of the box.
With tactics more reminiscent of Sunday park football than Total Football, the Dutch got back into the contest by bombarding the Argentine area with high balls aimed at their tall target men.
They were rewarded with a goal in the 83rd minute when Steven Berghuis crossed from the right and his fellow substitute Weghorst headed the ball past Martinez’s dive.
The Argentines held onto their lead until 11 minutes into stoppage time when Teun Koopmeiners cleverly reversed a free kick and found Weghorst free to put the ball past Martinez and level up the match.
The Argentines were still shell-shocked by the turnaround in the first period of extra time but recovered their composure to pepper the Dutch goal with shots, Enzo Hernandez coming closest to scoring with a rasping effort that hit the post.
The late surge gave Argentina the momentum going into the shootout, and Martinez added to it when he stopped spot kicks from Van Dijk and Berghuis.
The defeat was the first for the Dutch in 20 matches going back to last year’s European Championship and brought an end to 71-year-old Louis van Gaal’s third spell as coach.
It was the second time a Van Gaal team had lost to Argentina via a shootout in the knockout stages of the World Cup after a 4-2 defeat following a 0-0 draw in 2014 semi-finals.
“We practiced on penalties all year and then you screw it up,” said Van Gaal.
“That’s a pity. As a coach, I want to have everything under control. That is why I asked the players to take a penalty at their club, they all did. If you miss two, you won’t win anymore.”