SAO PAULO, Brazil — For all his individual brilliance, one of the knocks against Lionel Messi has always been that he’s only as good as the players around him.
Surround him with an all-star team like he has at Barcelona and he wins six La Liga titles, three Champions League crowns, is named the world player of the year four times and becomes the best-paid soccer star on the planet.
Send him home to play for Argentina and .... well, not so much.
But on Wednesday he might have finally found what he was missing in Sergio Romero, a down-on-his-luck goalkeeper who played the game of his life to lift Argentina into the World Cup final.
After 120 scoreless minutes against the Netherlands, Romero stopped two of four attempts in the penalty-kick shootout, sending Argentina on to challenge Germany for soccer’s most important prize Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.
All of Argentina’s penalty shooters, led by Messi, made their shots in the 4-2 tiebreaker, which qualifies the South Americans for their first World Cup final in 24 years. But it was Romero, who isn’t a starter for his French club team Monaco, who made the difference.
And afterward he singled out Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella for showing confidence in him at a time when few others were doing the same.
“I told him on the field when this was over that my gratitude to him was huge because he helped me in the most difficult time of my career,” said Romero, a World Cup starter four years ago. “It was the first year that I was sitting on the bench. So I have to thank Alejandro for everything that he’s done for me.”
Sabella wasn’t the only coach Romero thanked for making him a World Cup star, though. Moments after ending the Netherlands’ hopes of reaching a second consecutive final, Romero stepped into the silent Dutch locker room and shook hands with coach Louis van Gaal.
“I taught Romero how to save penalties,” van Gaal joked. “So that hurts.”
But he taught him other things too — things Romero, then a 20-year-old away from home for the first time, said helped ease the transition from Argentina to the Dutch Eredivisie, where he also learned his craft under van Gaal.
“I was in a completely different country with different customs where they spoke a completely different language,” Romero said. “He helped me a lot. So just as I’m grateful to Alejandro I’m grateful to van Gaal for everything he did for me.”
Romero found a strange way to show his appreciation, stopping a shot by Ron Vlaar to start the shootout, then guessing right against Wesley Sneijder and making a leaping, acrobatic save. That proved to be the difference when second-half substitute Maxi Rodriguez made his penalty to seal the win for Argentina.
The shootout lasted only four minutes — yet it was far more dramatic and featured much more action than the previous 120 minutes. In fact, although the Dutch enjoyed a modest edge in possession during the game, they put more shots on target in the tiebreaker then they did in the two hours that preceded it.
Neither team attacked as if they wanted to win, especially in a tentative first half. But there may have been reasons for that. The Dutch were a bit fatigued and might have been lacking a bit of confidence after taking 20 shots but failing to score in an overtime draw with Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. (The Netherlands advanced that time on penalty kicks.)
And Argentina was hurt by the loss of injured midfielder Angel Di Maria. That allowed the Dutch to collapse around Messi, making him a nonfactor for long stretches of the game.
Still, Argentina had two chances to win the game outright with Gonzalo Higuain coming within inches of a goal in the 75th minute, sliding into the six-yard box and deflecting a cross with a raised foot into the side of the net, and again in the second 15-minute overtime when Rodrigo Palacio’s header was snatched out of the air by Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen.
Cillessen wasn’t as good in the shootout. In the win over Costa Rica, van Gaal subbed Cillessen out in the final seconds of overtime because he felt backup Tim Krul was better against penalties. And Krul proved him right.
Van Gaal wanted to do that again Wednesday, but he had already used his three substitutions when the overtime ended — one of them to take out his best penalty shooter, Robin Van Persie, who was sick.
“We didn’t lose to them,” a defiant van Gaal said. “But then the penalty sequence is always a matter of luck. It is a terrible scenario to lose with penalties.”
Argentina will take it just the same.