The Dutch plot to stop Messi

Published December 7, 2022
DOHA: Dutch players Nathan Ake (L) and Jurrien Timber attend a press conference at Qatar University training sites on Tuesday.—AFP
DOHA: Dutch players Nathan Ake (L) and Jurrien Timber attend a press conference at Qatar University training sites on Tuesday.—AFP

Doha: Serenity surrounds the Netherlands at the World Cup in Qatar; from the hotel where they’re lodged to the ground where they train. Groves of palm trees line the sidewalks at the Qatar University, which would usually be humming with student activity but is closed for the tournament.

Several teams are using the grounds here for their training sessions and the Dutch are using No. 6. Here, they travel from the St Regis Hotel on the Katara beach, overlooking The Pearl, an artificial island that resembles a string of pearls when looked at from the sky.

Dutch progress at the World Cup too has been serene. Louis van Gaal’s side opened with a victory over Senegal, then drew with Ecuador before concluding their group campaign with another win against hosts Qatar.

Their most convincing win came against the United States in the round of 16, the side showing their ruthless efficiency in slicing apart American defence.

The quarter-finals, though, represent the greatest test. Lionel Messi, in potentially his last chance to win the tournament, and Argentina stand in their way.

At their training session on Tuesday evening, the plot to stop Messi has already begun. Their towering goalkeeper Andries Noppert, largely unknown to the world before he made his Dutch debut at the World Cup, was being tested with shots low to the ground by the second and third choice Dutch goalkeepers; one from the right, the other from the left on the corner of the pitch.

The ability to get down and dive quickly will be needed against Argentina on Friday. Messi has scored two goals with shots that stayed low.

Assistant coaches Danny Blind and Edgar Davids, standing out with his goggles and long braids, stand over as the Dutch outfield players warm-up. On the other side is the 71-year-old Van Gaal, who is battling cancer but came out of retirement to have a final crack at winning the World Cup.

The players run over obstacles, Virgil van Dijk, their captain and defensive lynchpin, leading them with Cody Gakpo, the star turn of this World Cup, running in at the very end of the line.

The three-man defence that started the Netherlands’ last-16 tie against the US — Jurrien Timber and Nathan Ake on either side of Van Dijk, will be ahead of Noppert; tasked with stopping Messi in his tracks. There is little chance that Van Gaal will tinker with his defence.

A chance for Matthijs De Ligt looks unlikely considering there is a need for a nimble defender to be tracking Messi. The young Ajax defender Timber has already received a ringing endorsement from Dutch great Marco Van Basten.

“Messi does not defend at all so in principle you play with 11 against 10, but if you lose the ball, you have to be careful that it is not immediately played to him,” Van Basten told Dutch broadcaster NOS on Tuesday.

“You can put someone on him for ninety minutes as without Messi, Argentina are a lot less. Maybe Timber can do that as he’s also important on the ball. If I was a trainer and I would have such a player in my team, I would seriously think about it.”

At a press conference preceding the training session, Timber and Ake spoke about the task ahead of them.

“We have to do that as a team,” said Timber. Ake, meanwhile, said it would be a “nice challenge to stop one of the greatest players ever”.

But he noted that there were other Argentina players who were a threat too, most notably his Manchester City team-mate Julian Alvarez, who followed up the opening goal by Messi with the second in their 2-1 win over Australia in the round of 16.

“We have to be careful about all the Argentina players.”

Questions to Ake and Timber, though, were more focused on the Dutch plan to stop Messi. “Tactics will be very important,” said Ake. “The coach [Van Gaal] lets everyone know where they stand, your role in the starting lineup.”

Ake was asked if he’d contacted his City manager Pep Guardiola, under whom Messi thrived at Barcelona and became an all-time great, about stopping the Argentina lodestar.

“No I haven’t spoken with him but I’m sure he will tell me that it will be a tough job,” informed Ake.

“It will be a good battle for sure.”

While their World Cup last meeting against Argentina, eight years ago in Brazil, ended in a heart-breaking penalty shootout loss in the semi-finals, the Dutch are looking to fonder memories of when the two teams last met at the same stage of the World Cup in 1998.

“We can all remember Dennis Bergkamp’s goal [that gave the Netherlands a 2-1 win in injury time],” said Timber. “We also want to make history.”

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2022

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