It was fiery, it was fractious, it descended into utter bedlam, simply a World Cup knockout tie for the ages. Argentina went to hell and back, collapsing deep into second-half stoppage time to squander a two-goal lead after Louis van Gaal’s substitutions combined to wreak havoc. But after a fraught period of extra time Argentina came out on top of a ludicrous bout, with Lautaro Martínez scoring the decisive spot-kick in a penalty shootout victory. Lionel Messi’s magical assist and penalty for his 10th World Cup goal, to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s record, finished as footnotes.
Argentina had to suffer and then some but Martínez kept his cool. Argentina had appeared in control but the arrival of Weghorst, a 6ft 6in striker who joined Besiktas on loan from Burnley in the summer, with 78 minutes on the clock undeniably changed the game. With seconds of 10 minutes of second-half stoppage time to play, two of Argentina’s substitutes, German Pezzella and Leandro Paredes, whose poor challenge on Nathan Aké brought a first melee approaching the end of normal time, were lured into sandwiching Weghorst on the edge of the box as the trio contested an aerial ball. And then the Dutch got inventive. Teun Koopmeiners, also a late substitute, shaped to shoot from the subsequent free-kick but instead cannoned the ball into the feet of Weghorst, who rolled his marker and promptly prodded the ball into the far corner.
The Netherlands substitutes emptied from the bench and legged it to embrace Weghorst, who in the space of 22 minutes had scored as many goals against Argentina as he has managed for Burnley. The Spanish referee, Antonio Mateu Lahoz, was ambushed as he blew his whistle and, not for the first time, Edgar Davids, part of Van Gaal’s coaching staff, ended up dragging orange shirts away from those in sky blue and white stripes. Yes, Argentina ceded their grip but, in truth, they had been living dangerously for a while and they presumably thought they had survived when another substitute, Steven Berghuis, whistled a shot against the side netting. Messi shook his head in disbelief as the whistle sounded for the end of normal time and the beginning of extra time.
Lionel Scaloni’s decision to mirror Van Gaal’s tactics by moving to a three-man defence always felt as though it would either pay off handsomely or backfire and for so long it seemed it would be the former as Nahuel Molina, the right wing-back, opened the scoring and Marcos Acuna, the left wing-back won the penalty that Messi converted to double Argentina’s advantage on 73 minutes.
When Messi’s name was read aloud before kick-off, the scene was akin to a communal worship. More than an hour and a half before play commenced the bank of Argentina supporters in the lowest of four tiers, behind Emiliano Martínez’s goal, were making a racket. Then confirmation of Brazil’s exit filtered through and the joy in others’ misery was audible. Martínez emerged for the warmup with a steely look in his eyes, clenching a fist in the direction of the fans. That was enough to kickstart the singing and the decibel levels only increased when, a couple of minutes after Rodrigo De Paul registered the game’s first shot on target with a tame side-foot shot from the edge of the box, Messi moseyed forward to craft the most sumptuous of Argentina goals.
With 22 minutes on the clock had Messi burst into life, sashaying infield towards the edge of the D before curling a shot over Andries Noppert’s goal. That created a predictable ripple of gasps among the crowd, but this was something else. Messi shimmied clear of Marten de Roon and then Aké, who seemed conflicted about which route to close off. Messi feasted on Aké’s indecision to zoom past the defender and proceeded to carry on his diagonal, scurrying run. From up in the gods, or indeed perhaps anywhere in this ground, the scene, on the face of it, seemed relatively harmless. But that is when Messi, a quiet assassin with a wonderfully feathery touch, is at his subtle best.
Messi, the Netherlands could be forgiven for thinking, was going nowhere but what happened next killed them. Messi, cutting across the pitch as he continued to forage forwards, veering from right to left, spied Molina in his peripheral vision and, after making the briefest of checks out of the very corner of his eye, he pushed a perfectly-weighted pass through to the Atlético Madrid defender. Molina, on the move and more presumptuous than the Dutch defence, collected the ball in his stride, controlling with his left foot before toe-poking past Noppert with his right. Every outfield player ran to Messi to celebrate, for they had another scintillating moment to cherish.
Van Gaal made a double change at the break, withdrawing Steven Bergwijn, who was preferred to Davy Klaassen, and De Roon but the Netherlands were powerless to stop Messi’s influence. He swivelled away from Daley Blind on the hour and then flighted a near-flawless free-kick on to the roof of Noppert’s goal after being barged over on the edge of the box by an unusually flustered Virgil van Dijk. Denzel Dumfries was then guilty of a silly challenge as Acuna chopped inside the 18-yard box, presenting Messi with the chance to double Argentina’s lead. There was no way he was going to miss. Messi’s spot-kick, swished into the corner, was typically unerring.
What happened next was not part of the script. Van Gaal threw on Weghorst and suddenly Argentina could not cope. When Berghuis crossed from the right and Weghorst flicked a header into the net it seemed it would be nothing more than a consolation strike, a footnote at the end of another game we would all spend eulogising about Messi. But the Netherlands did not relent and one brainless foul later they were level, Weghorst silencing a stadium brimming with Argentinians. Extra time lived up to what had gone before. Van Dijk blocked from Lautaro Martínez – not that he knew much about it – and Enzo Fernandez, soon after his shot looped on to the roof of the Dutch net, struck a post seconds before penalties were confirmed.