Netherlands and Argentina are set to go head to head in the World Cup quarter-finals on Friday evening and the stakes could hardly be higher.
The Albiceleste have recovered from a nightmare start to their campaign, squandering a first-half lead to fall 2-1 to outsiders Saudi Arabia in their opener before turning the tables with 2-0 wins over Mexico and Poland.
Now, the iconic Lionel Messi finds himself two wins from a second crack at the World Cup final, the PSG man raring to atone for the South Americans' missed opportunity against Germany eight years ago in Brazil.
But before Argentina fans can dream too vividly of lifting the coveted trophy for a third time, they must navigate past a Dutch side with plenty to prove after years spent in international obscurity.
After a loss in the 2010 final against Spain and a run to the last four in 2014, the Netherlands have flattered to deceive at international tournaments, failing to qualify for the World Cup in Russia before dropping out in the Euro 2020 round of 16, having watched from home four years prior.
Just as the Netherlands of old were known for their flowing, high-octane football, Argentina have become renowned for their attacking prowess.
Ever-popular with the neutrals, thanks in no small part to their diminutive playmaker Messi and his enduring fame, Argentina have turned out to be one of the best-supported teams at these World Cup finals.
Stadiums have hummed with anticipation of the flair of Messi and Lautaro Martinez, while even those attack-minded players who might have been expected to star in more of a background role have come to the fore; Julian Alvarez’s two goals in his last two games have certainly made a statement ahead of the Premier League’s return.
The 22-year-old has fought his way into his national side’s starting line-up after beginning the tournament on the bench.
All of the above point to the fact that wherever Argentina go, goals usually follow – in fact, they have scored twice in each of their last three, making up for the ruthlessness they failed to show in a chance-filled first half against the Saudis, when the Latin American side had three goals chalked off.
But in true Argentine style, it takes two to tango; the Netherlands have netted eight times in the competition so far and could well play their part in a veritable goal-fest, too. A punt on over 2.5 goals in the match, with both teams to score, is priced at 15/8 (Result/Total Goals).
The Netherlands’ 3-1 win over the USA in the second round was comfortable enough for Oranje, who were only threatened for a few short minutes by Haji Wright’s goal to narrow the gap to one, but the victory was unique in the fact that Cody Gakpo was absent from the scoresheet for the first time.
PSV's young talent is one of the most hyped players in Europe at present and the likelihood of a move to one of the continent’s major leagues seems to grow game-on-game.
As close to a sure-fire starter as you are likely to find at this event, Gakpo will be gunning to keep his stock high and propel the Netherlands to the latter stages and is at 7/2 to grab a goal at any time.
The World Cup has had its fair share of ‘flash in the pan’ scenarios over the years, but with Gakpo, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
His nine goals in 14 Eredivisie appearances, three in five Europa League games and one from one in the Dutch Super Cup this season signal that this is no sudden upturn in form, but merely a continuation.
In the second half of the first Group C game, the gulf between Argentina and a rampant Saudi Arabia was clear and no one in the Albiceleste camp will need reminding.
But another stark difference between the two sides was their level of discipline; while allowances can be made for the fact that the Saudis spent much of the second half trying to shut out their opponent, their tally of six yellow cards to the Argentines’ zero was staggering, but it’s a pattern that has continued into other Argentina games.
Only two of Lionel Scaloni's men have been booked over the four games they have played – only Gonzalo Montiel picked up a caution against Mexico, who saw four players' names enter the referee's notepad.
Marcos Acuna's was the sole yellow Argentina received against Poland and they again stayed out of trouble against the twice-cautioned Australians.