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 Posted by Iain Macintosh
Jul 9, 2014

Mascherano leads Albiceleste to Rio

Argentina's Javier Mascherano kept his team alive by denying Netherlands' Arjen Robben with a last-ditch tackle.

What to make of Argentina? There was a clear narrative laid down for Alejandro Sabella's team and, quite frankly, they've been rather inconsiderate in not following the script.

If they were to reach the final, it was to be Lionel Messi's doing. If they were to win the World Cup, it was to be Lionel Messi's World Cup. Everyone was comfortable with that. And then Javier Mascherano arrived at the party.

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While Messi has failed to score in the knockout rounds, it's the wild-eyed, shaven-headed destroyer in the middle who continues to excel.

Wednesday's semifinal was the kind of game that cries out for someone like Messi to dominate. Even in the absence of domination, a moment of magic would be nice. But here there was nothing.

Messi sent a free kick straight at Jasper Cillessen in the 13th minute and then wasn't seen again until his coolly taken penalty in the shoot-out. For all anyone knows, he could have been back in the dressing room, lazily leafing through a paperback for the rest of the night.

Hand a paperback to Mascherano and you suspect he'd slide-tackle it into the advertising hoardings.

Mascherano wasn't supposed to be the face of this Argentina side, but he has come to represent all of its greatest strengths. He is indefatigable, he is indomitable and there are rumours that he cannot be killed by conventional weapons.

You only have to look at how the Belgians reacted to his snarling presence to see the effect he has on other teams. Marc Wilmots' team decided they'd rather bypass the the middle and punt the ball long to their strikers than take the chance of crossing Mascherano's path.

He shouldn't even have been on the pitch on Wednesday after appearing to lose consciousness following a heavy blow to the head. Fortunately for Argentina, FIFA are yet to display any awareness of the dangers of concussion.

Mascherano, clearly still dazed, shook his head like a wet dog and wandered back into the fray, albeit perhaps with no idea what his name was, or what all these people in orange shirts were doing in his house.

There are two things in life you cannot choose: your family and the heroes of a World Cup. The marketing men wanted Messi, but tough tackling and tight marking have diminished his contribution.

In his place stands Mascherano, ironically a man all too familiar with the concepts that have neutralised his teammate.

The temptation was to say that if Argentina are going to win the World Cup, they'd need Messi at his best. The truth, based on what we've seen so far, is that Mascherano is now their key player.

Javier Mascherano making one of the tackles of the tournament -- denying Arjen Robben late on in the semifinal.

It was, in retrospect, too much to expect the Netherlands to win two penalty shoot-outs in one competition. Or, indeed, in one decade.

The only nation to rival England for their fear of a spot kick were forced into a second game of Russian roulette on Wednesday night and this time there was no Tim Krul to save them.

Cillessen, the goalkeeper spurned by manager Louis van Gaal against Costa Rica, wore a huge grin at the end of 120 minutes of boredom, delighted to have the opportunity to prove himself in a discipline in which he had not been trusted in the quarterfinals. Four consecutive Argentine goals soon wiped that off his face.

It wasn't his fault, of course, any more than it was Ron Vlaar's fault for awkwardly clipping the first penalty of the night straight at Sergio Romero.

The man known as "Roncrete" in some circles was a colossus for the Dutch all night, thus proving what you can achieve when you're not playing in a back three with a selection of inadequate, immature or just incompetent fellow Aston Villa defenders.

Ron Vlaar was immense for the Dutch throughout the tournament. Failing to convert the first penalty was a cruel way to bow out.

He was brave enough to step up and take a penalty for his nation; he just wasn't good enough to convert it. And for those who question the wisdom of allowing centre-backs to take spot kicks, Ezequiel Garay had an emphatic response: if in doubt, hit it so hard that it tears a hole in the space-time continuum.

The Netherlands far surpassed the expectations of their own manager, who gave his team only a 20 percent chance of making the quarterfinals before the tournament began.

That they made the semifinals, beating Spain, Australia, Chile and Mexico along the way, is a testament to the discipline and spirit of the unit.

Manchester United supporters will have looked on with interest and increasing hopes for a swift return to the Champions League under Van Gaal's aegis.

The Dutch shut down Argentina and threw a sack over Messi, but they couldn't do all that and still impose themselves upon the game as well. But given that they exited Euro 2012 without a single point, most supporters will reflect on a tournament that has at least restored some dignity.

Iain Macintosh

Iain Macintosh is a U.K. football correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore, writer for ESPN and co-author of "Football Manager Stole My Life" from @backpagepress. You can follow him on Twitter @iainmacintosh.