SAO PAULO, Brazil — The World Cup's second semifinal was supposed to put the silky skills of Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben in the spotlight. Instead, a goalkeeper and two rock-solid defenses stole the show.
Goalie Sergio Romero saved two penalties Wednesday to send Argentina into the World Cup final with a 4-2 shootout win over the Netherlands after tough defending and a lack of creative spark from either team consigned the match to a 0-0 stalemate.
In a twist of fate, Romero credited Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal with helping launch his career when he arrived as an inexperienced youngster at AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league.
"I will be forever grateful to the coach for helping me out in a country that is so different from ours," Romero said.
A day after Germany lit up the World Cup with its clinical 7-1 defeat of host Brazil, the Dutch and Argentines could not manage a goal between them in 120 minutes before the shootout.
Messi, widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, will have to play far better in Sunday's final at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium if he is to engineer a win over the powerful German team. The Barcelona star was muted throughout the match and extra time, rarely managing to shake off his markers.
At Itaquerao Stadium, he was overshadowed by his goalkeeper and the man he replaced as Argentina captain, Javier Mascherano, who bossed the midfield for his team the way surprise starter Nigel de Jong did for the Dutch.
When Robben looked like he'd decide the match in stoppage time, Mascherano's perfectly timed sliding tackle blocked his shot at the near post.
"I would say that he is an outstanding player," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said. "He is an emblem within our national squad, on the field as well as off it."
Romero — thought to be a weak link for Argentina and not even a starter for his Monaco club most of last season — had almost nothing to do during the match, but blocked penalties by Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder in the shootout. For Argentina, Messi, Ezequiel Garay, Sergio Aguero and Maxi Rodriguez all converted their spot kicks.
"It's luck, that's the truth. You can dive (the right way) and not make it, like happened to their goalkeeper," Romero said. "I had confidence, thank God things turned out well."
A Germany-Argentina final means an extra bitter end to the tournament for Brazilians, who will have to watch their fiercest rivals play for the world title in their most hallowed stadium against a team that humiliated their nation in the semifinals.
"We have a final to play, but with one day less rest and against Germany," Sabella said. "We'll do everything possible to make it all the way to the top."
It was the second straight penalty shootout following a 0-0 draw for the Dutch. Against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, Van Gaal brought on substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul in the last seconds of extra time to replace Jasper Cillessen and Krul saved two spot kicks.
This time, he had used up all three substitutions by the end of extra time and Cillessen had to face the shootout.
The young Ajax goalkeeper collapsed onto his knees and sank onto his back when Rodriguez's powerful strike ended the shootout. Krul walked across the pitch to console him.
Van Gaal also said he had a hand in Romero's heroics from their time together at AZ Alkmaar. "Penalties are always a matter of luck," he said. "And I taught Romero how to stop penalties so that hurts."
Argentina reached its fifth final, and its first in 24 years. It won the title in 1978 — beating the Dutch — and in 1986. It lost in 1930 and 1990. It played West Germany in the '86 and '90 finals.