European champions Italy will face Spain in the last four at the Nations League Finals in June, with hosts Netherlands drawn against World Cup semi-finalists Croatia.

Italy, who were absent from a second consecutive edition of the World Cup in Qatar last year, reached the Nations League semi-finals by edging out Hungary for top spot in a group which also contained Germany and England.

Standing between Roberto Mancini's men and the final are Spain – who beat the Azzurri 2-1 at the same stage of the competition in 2021 before losing the final against France.

Spain, who saw off Portugal to win Group A2, will be led by new head coach Luis de la Fuente after Luis Enrique departed in the aftermath of their surprise World Cup exit against Morocco.

The Netherlands, who were beaten finalists at the inaugural 2019 Nations League Finals in Portugal, will face Croatia in a home semi-final at De Kuip in Rotterdam.

The Oranje are also under new management, with Ronald Koeman returning to the role in place of Louis van Gaal after their World Cup quarter-final loss to eventual champions Argentina.

While it's all change for Spain and the Netherlands, there will be a familiar look to Croatia's side in June, with talismanic midfielder Luka Modric pledging to continue his international career after helping the team win bronze in Qatar.

The semi-final fixtures will take place on June 14 and 15, with the third-place play-off and final being held on June 18.  

Ronald Koeman plans to adopt a more attacking style of play with the Netherlands than the one established by his predecessor Louis van Gaal.

The Oranje reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Qatar under Van Gaal, but criticisms were directed to a style of football that was perceived to be negative.

A five-man defensive line proved to be miserly, conceding just twice in the first four matches of the tournament, but fans wanted more creative output from a side that boasted the likes of Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo.

The Netherlands' venture in Qatar came to an end against Argentina in a shoot-out defeat, having fought back from a two-goal deficit in a game that marked the final stand of Van Gaal's third spell at the helm.

A similar approach will not be adopted under Koeman, who instead plans to return to the four-man defence he used during his previous stint in charge from 2018-2020.

"In principle, we are going back to the system we played before," he said.

"I also change the system sometimes, but we are going to form the basic system with four defenders.

"In the end, it's all about the implementation of the system. I also played with five players at the back at Barcelona, with three central defenders, and that went very well.

"Everything revolves around: put high pressure or let yourself sink. That makes a system offensive or not."

Assessing the Netherlands' performance at the World Cup, Koeman praised Van Gaal's unbeaten record that stretched until the quarter-final defeat to Argentina and hopes he can enjoy a similar run of form, albeit in his own approach.

"We try to play attractive and fun football in the Netherlands. And twenty international matches remain unbeaten, that will be incredible if I manage to do the same," he added.

"It can be done differently, and I want to do it differently."

Koeman faces a baptism of fire on his return to the national side, with his first match coming against France in March as the qualification campaign for Euro 2024 begins.

Daley Blind revealed his shock move to Bayern Munich has received the backing of Louis van Gaal and Erik ten Hag.

Former Netherlands boss Van Gaal, who stepped down after the World Cup, is a former Bayern head coach, while Manchester United manager Ten Hag previously had a spell in charge of Bayern's reserve team.

Both think Blind has made a smart move by joining the German champions in a step that few saw coming.

The 99-cap Netherlands defender had been heavily linked with Royal Antwerp, but he jumped at the chance to join Bundesliga leaders Bayern, who are chasing an 11th consecutive league title.

Blind has committed to a six-month contract, with the 32-year-old adding the Bavarian giants to his illustrious list of clubs, having also had a four-year stint at United that ended in 2018.

Asked about the influence on the deal of Van Gaal and Ten Hag, who was his former coach at Ajax, Blind said: "I did not speak to them before. Everything went real quick.

"They messaged me after and told me it was a great step, a great opportunity. They were really happy and wished me all the luck."

Speaking at his presentation in Doha on Saturday, Blind refused to go into the reported falling-out with Ajax coach Alfred Schreuder that preceded him being cut free, six months before the end of his contract.

"There is a lot of news lately about Ajax and me, but I don't think is the right moment to talk about that," he said.

Blind is eager to fight for a place in the Bayern team, aware he will be "maybe not a first choice" initially.

His hope is that there will be the chance to extend his short-term deal, but Blind veered clear of looking too far into the future.

"We'll see what happens," he said. "I'll enjoy the moment for now and see what happens after."

Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic revealed talks with Blind happened prior to his Ajax exit being announced on December 27.

"Before Christmas we got in touch with him and he showed us straight away this would be his first option," Salihamidzic said.

"We got along very well straightaway and had a good feeling for each other.

"He's an asset for us. We know he's a great player so we hope we can win a few titles together."

There is perhaps no sporting debate that captures the imagination like that concerning the identity of football's greatest ever player.

The incredible goalscoring feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo put them at the centre of the discussion, but what about the greats of yesteryear? 

Does the cunning of Diego Maradona or the ingenuity of Johan Cruyff make one of them the best to have played the world's most popular sport?

The ultimate reference for all those iconic players, however, is Pele. The only player to have won three World Cups, the ultimate personification of "o jogo bonito".

With tributes flooding in after the Brazil icon passed away at the age of 82, Stats Perform delves into the Selecao star's incredible career, asking how it compares to those of the game's other greats.

Pele: The World Cup's finest

While any debate over the greatest player of all time will always be subjective, nobody can deny Pele his status as the ultimate World Cup legend.

His introduction to the global stage came at the 1958 tournament in Sweden, where Brazil exercised the demons of 1950 – when they lost the final on home soil to Uruguay in what became known as the "Maracanazo" – to clinch their first title.

A 17-year-old Pele missed Brazil's first two games at the tournament, but the Santos youngster quickly made the Selecao's number 10 shirt his own after coming in for a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union.

From there, he went from strength to strength, scoring his first World Cup goal against Wales before helping himself to a hat-trick against France in the semi-finals.

As Brazil overcame the hosts 5-2 in a thrilling final, Pele – at the age of 17 years and 249 days – scored twice. Only one other teenager has ever netted in a World Cup final – Kylian Mbappe in 2018.

 

As if one outstanding World Cup campaign was not enough, Pele was key to further Selecao triumphs in 1962 and 1970 – assuming a talismanic role in what many consider to be the greatest international team in history at the latter tournament.

Pele's tally of six assists in Mexico remains the highest tally recorded at a single World Cup since records began four years earlier, and his nonchalant lay-off for Carlos Alberto to finish off a flowing team move in Brazil's final win over Italy remains one of the most iconic moments in the tournament's history.

While modern-day detractors may point to Pele's failure to test himself in Europe, his incredible record on the grandest stage of all dictates that he is remembered among the very best, and there can be no doubt as to his unmatched World Cup legacy.

Johan Cruyff: The innovator

If Pele's legacy can be measured in World Cup accomplishments, Cruyff's must be examined in a very different way.

Cruyff's unbelievable tally of 36 chances created at the 1974 World Cup may be a single-tournament record, but it was not enough for the Netherlands to avoid the first of their three final defeats at the competition.

Eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and one LaLiga triumph as a player does not exactly do justice to the career of football's great innovator, the man considered responsible for "total football" and by extension, every free-flowing Barcelona or Ajax team that has followed.

If Pele's is best remembered as the World Cup's greatest player, perhaps Cruyff deserves the title of football's finest pioneer.

Diego Maradona: The individualist 

No conversation about football's greatest could be complete without a mention of Maradona, the man who almost single-handedly carried Argentina to football's greatest prize with a perfect blend of skill and cunning.

Astonishingly, Maradona claimed five goals and five assists as Argentina won the 1986 World Cup – a feat no other player has accomplished since detailed data collection began in 1966.

Maradona's quarter-final brace against England, perhaps the most iconic double in history, encapsulated his on-pitch personality perfectly – a mischievous first goal being followed by a truly remarkable second.

Maradona's tendency to carry unfancied sides to success was replicated on the club stage, with his two Serie A triumphs with Napoli earning him a level of adulation that will perhaps never be matched.

A beaten finalist in 1990, not even El Diego could match Pele's World Cup exploits, but the Argentine carved out a reputation as football's finest individualist. 

 

Cristiano Ronaldo: The big-game player

Like Cruyff, neither of the final two players on our list have made their greatest impact at the World Cup, but the incredible goalscoring feats of Ronaldo ensure his place among the game's legends.

In the Champions League – arguably the true pinnacle of the modern game – no player can match Ronaldo's total of 140 goals.

Ronaldo – who scored his 700th goal in club football earlier this season – has also lifted the Champions League trophy on five occasions – a tally no other player has bettered.

The 37-year-old started off the 2022 World Cup by becoming the first male player to net in five different editions of the tournament, though he ultimately ended it in disappointment, making just 10 touches after coming on as a substitute in Portugal's quarter-final defeat to Morocco.

He has been the ultimate big-game player. Whether he is anymore is clearly up for debate. 

Lionel Messi: The Magician 

While some may prefer the efficiency and athleticism of Ronaldo, there is no sight in modern football as joyous as that of Messi slaloming through panicked defences.

Seven Ballon d'Or wins tells you all you need to know, Messi's army of fans may say, while Pep Guardiola's revolutionary Barcelona side – considered by many as the best team to ever take to the field – was built to accommodate the Argentine's incredible mix of elite finishing, dribbling and passing skills. 

 

Until the last two years, the only major blot on Messi's career was a perceived failure to replicate the feats of Maradona, with the expectations of the Argentinian public often seeming to weigh heavily upon the shoulders of the diminutive attacker.

However, having helped the Albiceleste end a 28-year wait to win the Copa America in 2021, Messi then contributed seven goals and three assists to mirror Maradona's achievement of leading Argentina to World Cup glory, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward's campaign in Qatar already regarded as one of the greatest in the tournament's rich history.

While the sight of Messi lifting the World Cup trophy at the Lusail Stadium caused some to declare any debate regarding football's greatest player to be over, the forward's age dictates he will not get the chance to equal Pele's feats on the game's grandest stage.

Everyone has a different opinion on what makes a player the greatest in history, be it their style, their goal record, or their impact on subsequent generations.

The role of football's greatest tournament will always be pivotal, however, and on that basis, Pele will always have a place among the legends of the game.

Liverpool have reached an agreement to sign Netherlands international Cody Gakpo, his club PSV have announced.

Gakpo has been linked with several of Europe's biggest clubs – including Manchester United and Real Madrid – after emerging as a key part of Ruud van Nistelrooy's side. 

The forward has scored nine goals and provided 12 assists in 14 Eredivisie games this season, the third-highest tally of goal contributions (21) after 14 games in the league since the 1999-00 season – only Van Nistelrooy (27 in 1999-00) and former Liverpool man Luis Suarez (25 in 2009-10) have bettered that tally.

While Erik ten Hag's United have been linked with Gakpo for several months, reports on Monday claimed Liverpool were close to signing the 23-year-old for an initial £37million (€42m) fee.

Having impressed for the Netherlands at the World Cup in Qatar, where he scored three goals, Gakpo is now on course to arrive at Anfield in the January transfer window.

A statement from the Eredivisie giants said: "PSV and Liverpool have reached an agreement on the proposed transfer of Cody Gakpo.

"The 23-year-old attacker will leave for England imminently where he will be subjected to the necessary formalities ahead of the completion of the transfer."

The statement added that both clubs would not make an announcement on the fee, but general manager Marcel Brands did say: "this is a record transfer for PSV," with the club's previous record being the sale of Hirving Lozano to Napoli for a reported €45m.

Should a deal be completed, Gakpo will provide competition in the forward line for Jurgen Klopp's team, who are currently without injured pair Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota.

 

Georginio Wijnaldum has joined Roma's squad for a training camp in Portugal after missing the World Cup with a broken leg.

Wijnaldum joined Roma on a season-long loan in August after spending a single campaign with Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain.

The Netherlands international played just 11 minutes for the Giallorossi before breaking his right leg in training later that month, causing him to miss the Oranje's trip to Qatar – which ended with a penalty shoot-out defeat to Argentina in the last eight.

However, Wijnaldum will hope to play a significant role in the second half of the season after being seen out on the pitch at Roma's Trigoria training ground on Thursday.

Wijnaldum then joined Jose Mourinho's squad in travelling to Portugal for a training camp and three friendly matches – against Cadiz, Casa Pia and RKC Waalwijk.

Roma sit seventh in Serie A, three points adrift of a top-four place, ahead of the league's resumption on January 4.

Netherlands defender Daley Blind has expressed frustration at news of his likely January exit from Ajax quickly becoming common knowledge.

Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported on Wednesday how Blind has been given permission to leave the Amsterdam giants on a free transfer.

The club are said to have agreed to smooth the path for his exit because of his long service, which has come either side of a four-year stint with Manchester United.

Blind, 32, is the son of Ajax legend Danny Blind, and began his career in the Ajax youth ranks before emerging into the first team.

After his Old Trafford stay, he returned to Ajax in July 2018. His deal was due to expire at the end of this season, but the 99-cap international now looks poised to depart sooner.

Reports have linked Blind with Belgian club Royal Antwerp, whose director of football Marc Overmars previously worked in the same role at Ajax.

Blind reacted to the news getting out with an oblique message on Twitter, stating: "Such a pity but typical that this is within a day with the 'media'.

"It is also a misrepresentation of things. Sigh.."

Blind, only a substitute in Ajax's last games before the World Cup break, scored for the Netherlands during their campaign in Qatar, netting in the 3-1 win over the United States at the last-16 stage.

One short of a century of Netherlands caps, Blind will hope to remain in favour during Ronald Koeman's second stint as head coach of the Oranje.

Koeman is taking over from Louis van Gaal, whose third spell in charge of the national team ended with a defeat on penalties to Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals.

Lionel Scaloni dismissed the assertion his Argentina team were rightly criticised for their antics against the Netherlands.

Argentina face Croatia in the first World Cup semi-final on Tuesday, after overcoming the Netherlands on penalties.

The Copa America champions led 2-0 at Lusail Stadium yet were pegged back to a 2-2 draw by Wout Weghorst's double.

But Emiliano Martinez's saves paved the way for Lautaro Martinez to score the winning penalty in the shoot-out and send Argentina through to the last four.

The match was not without its controversy. Some of Argentina's players celebrated wildly in front of the Netherlands squad, while there were tussles on the touchline and Lionel Messi seemed to confront Oranje coach Louis van Gaal.

Scaloni, however, does not believe his team behaved poorly.

"The game was played the way we have to play, both teams did that," he said in a press conference.

"Some games, things can happen, arguments, challenging times. That's why there's a referee to ensure there's justice.

"We need to put an end to this idea that this is Argentina. We lost to Saudi Arabia and didn't do anything.

"We won the Copa America in Brazil and experienced the most sporting behaviour with Messi, [Leandro] Paredes and Neymar, all sat together in the tunnel.

"I'm not convinced of this idea of unsporting behaviour. We play with pride, the way we have to play and then the referee is in charge of decisions. We respect all the teams, the Netherlands, Croatia and all the opponents. That's one of our main characteristics of our personality.

"We need to end this idea of not being good winners or losers, that's very far from what we are as a team and a squad, and the way we represent this nation."

Messi, usually so composed, even seemed caught up in the emotion against the Netherlands, though with this likely to be his final World Cup, the 35-year-old's desire to end his wait for the trophy seems truly fierce.

Scaloni said: "Messi, I know him so well, he's always been like that, always been a winner, he's so eager and willing to keep playing football."

Asked how it felt to coach Messi at his last World Cup, Scaloni added: "We will see whether he continues playing or not, we will keep enjoying him, that's all we can do – for us and the world of football.

"If things turn out well, everything will be good for us, we have our whole country supporting us."

Lionel Messi gives Argentina a "special advantage", says Nicolas Tagliafico, as La Albiceleste prepare for their World Cup semi-final with Croatia.

Lionel Scaloni's side are two wins away from Qatar 2022 glory, having shrugged off a shock opening loss against Saudi Arabia to battle their way to the last four.

Captain Messi has won virtually all major honours possible save for the World Cup, and in likely his final World Cup with his country, is out to complete his collection.

Tagliafico credits the veteran forward as the driving factor both for and behind their run to within 90 minutes of the final, stating he fires his team-mates on to greater heights.

"He's always been like this," he stated. "For us, he is our captain, our leader, the one who pushes us and motivates us. He's the one who has that special advantage.

"When we are on the pitch, we know we have Messi. We are so happy to have him as our captain. That's the most beautiful thing, to do this with Messi by our side.

"This World Cup, we have enough experience to reach this stage. We know in the knockouts, there'll be a few moments where we will struggle.

"We have the experience. We need to have enough character to go through all that and overcome it. That motivates you even further."

Penalties were required to see Argentina through their quarter-final clash with the Netherlands, in what devolved into a bad-tempered affair from both sets of players.

Scaloni's men were accused of being poor winners after their victory, but Tagliafico has defended his actions and those of his team-mates, suggesting they will behave the same again.

"Those situations happen in the world of football," he added. "We are not machines. The emotions were running high. It has happened in previous matches.

"It will likely happen again. This was a World Cup quarter-final, with two teams fighting it out. We tried to live it as such."

Louis van Gaal says he leaves a Netherlands squad with close bonds but not enough wingers after he retired in the aftermath of their World Cup exit.

The Oranje went unbeaten throughout regulation time at Qatar 2022 and were only eliminated on penalties by Argentina in the quarter-finals on Friday.

Van Gaal's side boasted an array of defensive and offensive talent, with Cody Gakpo finishing the tournament with three goals to his name up front in attack and Wout Weghorst snatching a dramatic brace versus La Albiceleste.

But though the veteran coach feels he departs a team that can rely on each other, he acknowledges they lack the crucial players out wide to exploit the full breadth of the pitch.

"What do I leave behind with the Oranje?" he told AD. "I leave a good, close-knit group with a lot of footballing ability.

"But I leave without wingers who can pass an opponent at the highest level. You need wingers who can pass those men.

"Dutch football doesn't have that at the moment, not when it comes to the very highest level of a World Cup. That's why I started playing differently."

Van Gaal noticeably favoured a direct approach in the closing stages of the Netherlands' game with Argentina, forcing extra-time after two late goals forged through the middle.

The 71-year-old will now be succeeded by former Oranje boss Ronald Koeman, who returns to the helm of the national team, having left for an ill-fated spell with Barcelona in August 2020.

Frenkie de Jong has described the officiating of the Netherlands' World Cup quarter-final against Argentina as "scandalous", claiming referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz was influenced by Lionel Messi.

The Netherlands staged a remarkable comeback to force extra time after going 2-0 down in Friday's clash courtesy of Wout Weghorst double, but the Oranje then suffered penalty heartache as they lost the shoot-out 4-3.

Lahoz was widely criticised for his display after showing 15 yellow cards during the match.

Argentina captain Messi said Lahoz was not "up to the task" of overseeing such a fixture at the end of a heated affair, and while De Jong agrees, he felt the presence of his former Barcelona team-mate contributed. 

"When regular playing time was over, the Argentina players all went to him and from then on he only whistled for Argentina," De Jong said of Lahoz. 

"Jurrien Timber's shoe was kicked off, but then he whistled for a foul against us. Luuk [de Jong] just wins a normal header and he blows his whistle, they kick the ball into our dugout, he doesn't care.

"Messi takes the ball with his hand, he just lets it go. He was really scandalous. 

"He is a nice guy, a good referee. But here he was beyond reason. I think he lost his way in overtime. 

"It could well be that the greatness of Lionel Messi had an influence on that. It's not the referee's fault, but it did affect the game."

Only Spain, with four, have lost more World Cup penalty shoot-outs than the Netherlands, one win, three defeats, while Argentina have prevailed on spot-kicks at the tournament more often than any other team with five and one defeat.

The manner of the Netherlands' defeat left De Jong stunned, with the midfielder revealing he was convinced they would lift the trophy.

"I was convinced that we would win when we equalised," De Jong said. "In any case, I was convinced that we would become world champions.''

Argentina will face "karma" for their actions during their 4-3 penalty shoot-out triumph against the Netherlands in the World Cup quarter-finals, says former Italy international Claudio Marchisio.

La Albiceleste reached the semi-finals for the second time in three tournaments after they prevailed on penalties following a late Oranje rally that saw extra time finish with the scores level at 2-2.

The match was an extremely fractious affair and broke the World Cup record for cards handed out, with referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz brandishing 14 yellows and one red.

But the behaviour of Argentina in victory - with Nicolas Otamendi taunting the defeated Dutch squad after penalties the standout from several displays of poor sportsmanship - will haunt them, claims Marchisio

"Watch out," Marchisio wrote on Twitter. "What you sow, you will reap. The law of karma is inexorable, evasion is impossible, [to quote] Mahatma Gandhi."

Tempers appeared closing to boiling over at several points during Friday's match, and the bad blood was still evident well after Lautaro Martinez's penalty sealed victory for Argentina.

Lionel Messi was seen to remonstrate with Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal, while he also was involved in a verbal altercation with Oranje forward Wout Weghorst during a post-match interview.

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez meanwhile accused referee Lahoz of being "useless". Messi refused to criticise the official's performance, citing expected punishment if he did.

Argentina will face Croatia on Tuesday in the first semi-final of Qatar 2022, with Lionel Scaloni's side looking to reach their second final in eight years, after Brazil 2014.

Argentina and the Netherlands are being investigated by FIFA following Friday's fiery World Cup quarter-final.

South American champions Argentina prevailed 4-3 on penalties at Lusail Stadium, having earlier squandered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 as the game went the distance.

Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz issued 15 cards to players who played a part in the game – the most in World Cup history, overtaking Cameroon versus Germany in 2002 (14).

Netherlands defender Denzel Dumfries was also shown a red card after the match.

There was a big flashpoint in the 89th minute when Leandro Paredes committed a foul on Nathan Ake and then booted the ball into the Netherlands' dugout.

Both sets of players and coaching staff squared off, though tensions again threatened to boil over in extra-time and also in the subsequent penalty shoot-out.

FIFA announced in a statement on Saturday that proceedings have been opened against the Argentinian Football Association and the Dutch Football Association.

The charge relates to a possible breach of article 12 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code – the misconduct of players and officials.

Lionel Scaloni's side are also being investigated over an additional potential breach of article 16, which relates to order and security at matches.

Argentina have won the most penalty shoot-outs of any side in World Cup history (five out of six), while only Spain have lost more than the Netherlands (one win from four).

Speaking after the game, Argentina superstar Lionel Messi criticised Spanish official Lahoz over his handling of the contest.

"I don't want to talk about the referee, because you can get a suspension, but people saw what happened," he said. 

"FIFA have to look at that, they can't put in a referee who isn't up to the job at this stage."

Defenders Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna were among the players booked and will now serve a suspension in Tuesday's semi-final against Brazil's conquerors Croatia.

Wout Weghorst expressed dismay at being snubbed by Lionel Messi after the Netherlands striker was given the brush-off following Friday's chaotic quarter-final.

The Dutch frontman made a stunning impact as a substitute, scoring a late double to force a 2-2 draw and take the match to extra time.

He almost overshadowed Messi, whose penalty had put Argentina two goals clear, and afterwards it emerged Weghorst and Messi clashed following the Copa America champions' victory on penalties.

Prior to a post-match TV interview with TyC Sports, Messi said to somebody out of camera shot: "What are you looking at, fool?"

That bystander has been identified by the broadcaster as having been Weghorst.

The Netherlands are going home after being unable to cap their thrilling fightback, and Weghorst was taken aback by Messi's attitude when he caught up with him.

"I wanted to shake his hand after the game, I have a lot of respect for him as a soccer player," Weghorst said, "but he threw my hand to the side and didn't want to talk to me."

Quoted by Marca, Weghorst added: "My Spanish isn't very good, but he said disrespectful words to me and that disappoints me, really disappointing."

Weghorst became the first substitute to score twice in a World Cup match for the Netherlands.

The game saw 15 cards shown to players that played an active part, which set a new record for the most in World Cup history. Dutch defender Denzel Dumfries was sent off after the shoot-out, with tensions spilling over.

Lionel Messi was motivated to lead Argentina past the Netherlands due to feeling "a little attacked" by Louis van Gaal's pre-match comments, Lionel Scaloni said.

Messi is enjoying an outstanding World Cup and continued in that vein on Friday as he scored one and created another in a 2-2 quarter-final draw with the Netherlands.

Argentina advanced after a penalty shoot-out, recovering after Wout Weghorst's dramatic double had denied them victory in normal time.

There had predictably been plenty of focus on Messi heading into the match, with Netherlands coach Van Gaal suggesting Argentina were relying too heavily on their captain in attack while he would not be asked to defend.

Messi appeared to gesture in Van Gaal's direction on multiple occasions, including after scoring, cupping his ears in an apparent reference to Juan Roman Riquelme's own celebration.

Van Gaal and Riquelme were at odds during their time together at Messi's former club Barcelona.

"I'm not going to give Van Gaal advice, but it's not easy to make [Messi] play angry," Argentina coach Scaloni told TyC Sports.

"I don't know if he was angry, but to make him play the way he played today... it's exciting.

"These are things that happen on the pitch and stay there. But we didn't play with one less when we didn't have the ball, we played with 11.

"I think with Leo he felt a little attacked and showed that he is the best of all time. We are happy to have him."

After a last-16 win over Australia, in which Messi was similarly influential, team-mate Alexis Mac Allister had explained how the legendary forward was inspired to perform.

Messi was involved in a confrontation with Australia's Aziz Behich moments before scoring his first World Cup knockout goal.

"Leo, when these things happen, he brings out that inner fire that he has, that personality that makes him even bigger than he is," Mac Allister told reporters.

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