Can Argentina cope without Di Maria? Or will Dutch luck continue?

The Rio Report

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Angel Di Maria has been ruled out of Argentina's semi-final against the Netherlands but fellow forward Sergio Aguero has recovered from a muscle strain and is fit to play, but how will Louis van Gaal react?

Aguero looked comfortable in training at the Argentine camp, but Di Maria was missing and undergoing intensive treatment after hobbling out of their 1-0 quarter-final win over Belgium.

In their first semi-final since 1990, the South Americans play the Netherlands in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.

"Angel has a Grade 1 injury. Of course he won't play in Argentina's next game. After that, we'll evaluate the situation day-by-day," team doctor Daniel Martinez told reporters.

It will be interesting to see whether the Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella goes with the defence-minded Enzo Perez, who replaced Di Maria against the Belgians, or goes for a more attacking option.

His Dutch counterpart Van Gaal has been willing to adjust his line up and formation for each game, but the one constant is the reliance on Arjen Robben to terrorise defences with his high-speed dribbling.

While much attention has focused on the tricky winger's tendency to go down easily in seeking penalties, that has distracted somewhat from the way his pace, directness and shooting have been the main focus of the Dutch attacks.

Van Gaal's side have cut it fine on the route to the semi-finals though - they needed penalties to get past Costa Rica in the quarter-finals having only beaten Mexico by a controversial last-minute penalty in the previous round.

They will need striker Robin van Persie to recapture his form from the group stages to give the Argentina defence something else to ponder apart from Robben's direct threat.

The two teams have met four times before in the World Cup, including in the 1978 final which Argentina won 3-1 after extra time on home soil. That was their only win over the Dutch at the finals having lost twice and drawn once in the other matches.

How important is Di Maria to Argentina?

Indisputably, Lionel Messi is central to everything that Argentina do. However, the importance to this side of Di Maria cannot be understated. Teams tend to primarily set up to nullify the threat of Messi, which is, of course, perfectly understandable. However, the fact that Argentina have a player on the pitch who is also capable of the sublime means that teams cannot solely concentrate on Messi. Di Maria allows Messi to breathe in those central areas as he offers another threat hugging the touchline. Remove that threat out wide and Holland may be able to completely suffocate Messi.

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This is where Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella needs to earn his keep. With Argentina leading Belgium when Di Maria had to leave the field, it made sense to introduce a defensive-minded player such as Perez. However, if Sabella elects to select Perez against the Netherlands then it will completely hand the initiative to Van Gaal’s men. The expected return of Aguero will certainly soften the loss of Di Maria but he patently does not offer the same option as the Real Madrid man. If anything, his return could further clutter things in central areas.

Will Van Gaal’s luck run out?

Van Gaal has been rightly lauded for much of this tournament for his tactical acumen and quite rightly so. His audacious decision-making throughout their World Cup campaign has borne considerable fruit but Van Gaal has also been the beneficiary of some luck. This is not to undermine Van Gaal’s astuteness but it is important to recognise that integral to the success of a bold decision is a touch of luck.

Van Gaal’s decision to completely change his side’s shape from 4-3-3 to 5-3-2 in the wake of the loss of Kevin Strootman in March proved to be an inspired risk worth taking as they opened their campaign with a 5-1 mauling of Spain. While, the tactical tweaks he made during the water break against Mexico saw a dramatic turnaround. Granted, there was little luck involved in that tactical amendment but it took place during the first drinks break of the tournament - having the opportunity to give an additional team talk cannot be underestimated.

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Again, his decision to introduce Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen for the penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica was inspired, but, as with any shoot-out, there was an element of luck involved. If that luck went with the Central Americans and they had won the penalty shoot-out then that decision looks a little less inspired.

With all things, there will be a tipping point where Van Gaal’s run of boldness and luck will run out. The Netherlands will be hope this point comes after July 13; Argentina will hope that point has already come.

Key stats:

While Argentina have won the World Cup twice (1978, 1986), the Dutch are perennial underachievers in the tournament having reached three finals but coming away empty-handed each time (1974, 1978, 2010).

The teams met in the controversial 1978 final, which kicked off late after hosts Argentina objected to a plaster cast on the forearm of Dutch player Rene van de Kerkhof.

Argentina won the final 3-1 after extra time.

There have been four previous meetings at the World Cup between the sides - the Netherlands winning two, Argentina one - in the '78 final - and one draw.

The Netherlands, with 12 goals, are joint top scorers in the 2014 tournament with Colombia, who have already been eliminated.

Lionel Messi has scored four of Argentina's eight goals, while Dutch forwards Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie have each notched three.

With their 1-0 quarter-final win over Belgium, Argentina equalled their longest World Cup winning streak of five games. All five victories have been by one-goal margins.

Previous meetings:

The teams have played each other eight times overall, with the Netherlands winning four, Argentina one and three draws.

World Cup meetings:

1974 Second round: Netherlands 4 Argentina 0

1978 Final: Argentina 3 Netherlands 1

1998 Quarter-finals: Netherlands 2 Argentina 1

2006 Group stage: Argentina 0 Netherlands 0

Reuters / Eurosport

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