By Matias Grez, CNN
Leading 2-0 with just eight minutes remaining thanks to goals from Nahuel Molina and Messi, the Netherlands staged a stunning comeback as a Wout Weghorst’s brace ensured the game went to extra time.
With neither side able to find the winner in those extra 30 minutes, the match was decided on penalties and Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez made himself the hero for La Albiceleste, saving two Dutch spot kicks.
Martinez has made a name for himself as an expert in penalty shootouts, saving three in Argentina’s Copa America semifinal against Colombia last year, and further cemented his place as an Argentine hero in Qatar.
After Enzo Fernandez missed the first penalty that would have given Argentina victory, Lautaro Martinez stepped up and hammered home the winning spot kick to send the thousands of Argentine fans inside the Lusail Stadium into delirium.
Argentina’s players remained out on the pitch long after the shootout was over, taking in the adulation of their adoring fans who will no doubt be celebrating long into the night in Qatar.
It was another remarkable ending to a match at this World Cup, which has seen all manner of shocks and comebacks, though this one perhaps exceeded them all.
Spanish referee Mateu Lahoz, known for his eccentricity and enjoyment of the limelight, certainly added to the drama, dishing out an numerous yellow cards, including one in the shootout, as he struggled to keep control of the game.
There were no less than three mass brawls throughout the 120 minutes and penalties, the first one sparked by Leandro Paredes smashing a ball straight into the Netherlands dugout at the side of the pitch.
It became difficult to keep a track of which players were being disciplined by Lahoz but according to FIFA, 18 yellow cards (two for Dumfries) and one red card were brandished during the quarterfinal.
This match will undoubtedly go down as an all-time World Cup classic, but Argentina will quickly need to bring itself down back to earth ahead of the semifinal against knockout specialist Croatia.
Millions of Argentines have dreamed of the day Messi emulates the late Diego Maradona and lifts the World Cup. That day is now one step closer.
Messi’s World Cup swansong
The 35-year-old Messi has done everything within his powers to ensure Argentina had the best chance possible to win a first World Cup title since 1986.
There have been fleeting moments of the Messi magic football fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the years, most notably his wonderful touch and finish against Mexico in the group stages that gave Argentina a crucial breakthrough after the shock defeat by Saudi Arabia.
Few fans would have placed Argentina among the favorites ahead of the tournament, but with Messi in the team’s ranks anything is possible, at any time.
Under head coach Lionel Scaloni, a former Argentine international, the team is in a better place than it has been for some quite some time and in 2021 won the Copa America, the national team’s first major trophy since 1993 and Messi’s first in the famous blue and white shirt.
However, Argentina was yet to put together a convincing 90 minutes in Qatar and defensive frailties that has hindered it in recent years undoubtedly remain.
The Dutch, meanwhile, failed to impress in the group stages but were greatly improved in the 3-1 round of 16 win over the the United States Men’s National Team and Memphis Depay’s opener in that game, a patient, probing team move, is without question one of the best goals of the tournament so far.
This was the sixth World Cup meeting between these two teams and this fixture has provided plenty of history over the years. From a Mario Kempes-inspired victory in the 1978 final to Dennis Bergkamp’s stunning goal in the 1998 quarterfinals, this rivalry was ready for another player to write their name in soccer folklore.
The opening 35 minutes were predictably cagey, with neither side willing to take much of a risk while in possession.
But, unsurprisingly, it was Messi that unlocked a stubborn Dutch defense with a ludicrous, almost impossible, moment of genius.
Running towards the left-hand side of the penalty area, the Argentina captain played an absurd reverse pass perfectly into the path of Molina, who took one touch and poked the ball past Andries Noppert.
Replays showed Messi didn’t once look up to see Molina’s run; how he saw the pass, let alone played it, only he will know. Just when you think you’ve seen it all in his 18-year career, Messi still finds a way to leave mouths agape.
World Cup madness
When Messi stepped up to make it 2-0 from the penalty spot after 75 minutes, it looked like game over. However, if there’s one thing the World Cup in Qatar has shown, it’s that these matches are never over until the referee blows for full time.
Having offered so little for more than 80 minutes, the Netherlands opted to hammer long ball after long ball towards the Argentina penalty area, aiming for the 6 feet 6 inch substitute Weghorst and Virgil Van Dijk.
It paid off spectacularly, as Weghorst headed home brilliantly from Steven Berghuis’ delivery with just under eight minutes left to play.
That goal set up a grandstand finish, which included the first of three mass brawls.
With almost the very last action of the game, the Netherlands were awarded a free kick just outside the penalty area.
It looked as though either Cody Gakpo or Teun Koopmeiners were going to take a shot at goal, but the latter played an ingenious pass into Weghorst, who turned his defender and slotted the ball past Martinez.
That goal sparked wild scenes as the entire Netherlands bench emptied to celebrate by the corner flag, silencing the thousands of Argentina fans that had been so boisterous throughout the game.
It was an almost inconceivable turn of events with Weghorst, who struggled to make an impact at Burnley and is currently loaned out to Besiktas, temporarily putting a halt to Messi’s seemingly inevitable march towards a World Cup title.
However, Messi and Argentina were not to be denied and held their cool from the spot to bring to a close an incredible evening of football.
There were further sour scenes that followed, though, as some of the Argentina team celebrated in the faces of the distraught Dutch players once Martinez had scored the winning penalty, caused tempers to flare once again.
Messi is now tantalizingly close to lifting his first World Cup and it will take something special to stop an incredible player who seems hellbent on lifting the trophy he craves the most.
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