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Mascherano heroics give Messi chance on biggest stage

By Kris Voakes at Arena Corinthians, Sao Paulo

Lionel Messi and Argentina have finally made it to the World Cup final, but their last-four victory over Netherlands will always be remembered as Javier Mascherano’s moment of glory.

When Maxi Rodriguez’s spot-kick cannoned off Jasper Cillessen and into the net to complete a 4-2 penalty shoot-out success, the Albiceleste players who flocked to the wing man would have been forgiven for running straight for Mascherano instead.

On at least three occasions, he saved his side as a forgettable fixture was highlighted only by the kind of defensive brilliance that Brazil’s hammering against Germany seriously lacked 24 hours earlier.

After a magnificent atmosphere had been built up by the two sets of supporters in the hour leading up to kick-off, the players did their very best to dampen spirits entirely in the 120 minutes that followed.

In complete contrast to the semi-final on Tuesday night, Ezequiel Garay’s flying header from a left-wing corner was as close as either side came in the first half, and only a Messi free-kick easily claimed by Cillessen found the target at either end.

The Dutch were more than happy to sit behind the ball and force Argentina to look for gaps, with the Albiceleste’s slow build-up play resulting in long periods of stalemate.

And while there was a slightly greater sense of urgency on display in the second half, the modus operandi of either side did not change too much. Arjen Robben seemed set to break the deadlock right on full-time, but after being freed by Wesley Sneijder’s flick he took too long to get a shot in, allowing the irrepressible Mascherano to cover with a fantastic challenge.

It took the Dutch until the 99th minute to test Sergio Romero, but even then Robben’s shot from distance was arrowed straight at the Argentina goalkeeper.

During half-time in extra-time, Mascherano – who earlier had appeared out for the count as he laid near-concussed after a head clash with Georginio Wijnaldum – rallied the troops, delivering a pep talk to the rest of the players that seemed to have even coach Alejandro Sabella transfixed.

That this game was always destined for penalties was more thanks to the excellence of Ron Vlaar and Mascherano, who both had more of a say in the match ending scoreless than any of the attackers who fell short in front of goal. It was billed as Messi v Robben but ended up being nothing of the sort.

While Mascherano pulled off most of the memorable interceptions and blocks during the 120 minutes, Vlaar seemed to be in Messi’s shadow throughout, ensuring that the Barcelona genius did not enjoy a single touch in Netherlands' box.

It was so cruel that he should then step up to take the first penalty and fire weakly at Romero. It was a blow from which the Dutch would never recover.

Sneijder was later foiled by a magnificent Romero save and Maxi finished it off.

Messi is the main man heading into the final, but it is thanks to Mascherano that he’ll be playing in one at all.

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