THRUST into the World Cup spotlight, Andreis Noppert, with less than 50 appearances in a club career spanning just about a decade, has not disappointed. Noppert’s Netherlands debut came only in Qatar and he’s since been the man between the sticks for Louis van Gaal. On Saturday evening, Netherlands reached the quarter-finals and it promises to be the biggest test of the 28-year-old goalkeeper’s nascent international career when he will be tasked with stopping Lionel Messi.

Standing at 2.03 metres, Noppert is the tallest player at the World Cup and he does make his presence felt. But he’s surprisingly soft spoken for a man of that stature. The Dutch had just swatted aside United States 3-1 in their round-of-16 tie at the Khalifa International Stadium and the shot-stopper, whose shin had denied their opponents from taking an early lead, arrived at the mixed zone, full of throngs of reporters looking to put their questions.

The Dutch, whose game opened the knockout stage, were in the bracket that was going to see them face the winner of the Saturday night’s game between Argentina and Australia. But Noppert left no doubt as to which side Netherlands were talking about as their potential opponents. “For sure, always, in my opinion they have the biggest chance to win this game tonight and then we play against them,” he told Dawn when asked if there had already been talk in the Dutch dressing room about facing Messi and company. “But they still play tonight and we will see who wins. The job doesn’t change, we still have to win.”

Messi produced another magic moment at the World Cup later on Sunday, scoring the opening goal, but Argentina were made to sweat for a 2-1 victory by Australia. With the Argentina talisman in ominous form at potentially his last World Cup, Noppert and the Netherlands will have their hands full when the two sides clash on Friday.

Netherlands’ journey at the World Cup has an emotional, human angle to it. It’s the last tournament for their cancer-stricken coach Louis van Gaal, who came out of retirement to help the Dutch qualify for the World Cup. In a career in which he’s won it all, the World Cup is the only thing missing from Van Gaal’s CV. It’s a title the Netherlands also crave. They’ve been beaten finalists thrice — in 1974, 1978 and 2010 — and the last time they were at the World Cup, eight years ago in Brazil when incidentally Van Gaal was also the coach, they were beaten by Argentina in the semi-finals. “He [Van Gaal] is a really special person, he tries to make everyone better and the team united and focused on the aim to win the World Cup,” said Noppert.

Defender Nathan Ake said the fact that the World Cup was Van Gaal’s final farewell was going to see the Dutch fight till the end. “The team is united behind him,” he told reporters. “When we started, we had the aim to win it. There are other teams who are being regarded as favourites but we have the confidence that we have what it takes to win it.”

Despite his track record, Van Gaal’s pragmatic appr­oach to the game means he doesn’t enjoy a cult following in his homeland where the ‘Total Football’ philosophy of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff is heavily ingrained. There has been criticism back home about their playing style. Against the US, the Dutch didn’t have much ball possession but were clinical on the counterattack.

“Back home, we are used to having more of the ball and so I can understand the criticism,” man-of-the-match Denzel Dumfries, who scored a goal and got two assists, told reporters. “We were good on the ball and today we showed the quality of the system. We can play better with the ball but we have the quality to counterattack too.

Van Gaal’s tactics were spot on against the Americans. Now, he has to plot Argentina’s downfall. It’s a tantalising fixture with so much riding on it. By the end of it, one of Van Gaal or Messi will be ending their careers without tasting World Cup glory.

“We have a really tough clash in the quarter-finals against Netherlands, who play very well,” Messi said at a news conference after their last-16 tie against Australia at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. “They have great players and a great coach, it’s going to be hard fought.”

When the two sides last met, Messi scored the opening penalty in the shootout that Argentina won 4-2 following a goalless draw. Fixtures between the two sides are steeped in history and they also met in the final of the 1978 edition.

Netherlands’ only knockout victory against Argentina at the tournament, though, came at the quarter-finals stage in 1998, settled by a brilliant 90th-minute winner by Dennis Bergkamp.

“It will be a beautiful game with two historic national teams,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said at a news conference following their qualification to the last eight. “We saw their match today. Probably they don’t play as beautifully as the Dutch teams of the past but they have strong points as well as weaknesses we will try to exploit. We hope we qualify.”

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2022

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