SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Argentina's Sergio Romero launched himself left and right to save two penalties in a 4-2 shootout win over the Netherlands on Wednesday that sealed the South Americans' first World Cup final appearance in 24 years.
After the teams battled to a 0-0 draw in the first ever goalless semi-final, Romero plunged low to his left to save the first kick from Dutch defender Ron Vlaar, then flew high to his right to palm away Wesley Sneijder's effort.
The pressure of scoring the winning penalty kick fell to Argentina substitute Maxi Rodriguez, who picked power over placement and, while Jasper Cillessen got a hand to the ball, it ricocheted up off the underside of the bar and into the net.
Twice champions Argentina now travel to Rio de Janeiro for Sunday's final against old rivals Germany, who thrashed hosts Brazil 7-1 in the other semi-final in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.
It will be a repeat of the 1986 and 1990 finals and the first time the same two teams will have faced each other three times in the title decider.
Goalkeeping hero Romero, who clutched the ball tight as he spoke to reporters after the game, put his saves down to a lot of self-belief and a little luck.
"...I'm really happy with everything," he said in a televised interview. "(Penalties) are a question of luck, that's the reality ... I had confidence in myself and, fortunately, everything turned out well."
While Romero basked in the limelight, Cillessen's head hung low as he was consoled by his team mates.
The Dutch first-choice keeper has never saved a penalty in his professional career, which may have been behind coach Louis van Gaal's decision to replace him with Tim Krul for the quarter-final shootout against Costa Rica.
But after Van Gaal used up his substitutions on outfield players during the 120 minutes of regulation and extra time, he had no choice but to go with Cillessen for the shootout.
Van Gaal, whose brave decision to bring in Krul against Costa Rica proved a masterstroke, said he would have called upon his big stopper Krul once again if he had had the choice.
"If I had had the opportunity to substitute Jasper I would have done that, but I had already used three substitutes so I couldn’t do that," the Dutch coach said.
With Brazil's harrowing defeat still fresh in the mind, caution was the watchword of a tactical first half as both sides felt each other out and battled for possession across the pitch in a defence-dominated encounter short on entertainment.
Nigel de Jong, best known for his chest-high kick on Spain's Xabi Alonso in the 2010 final which the Dutch lost, completed a remarkable recovery from a groin injury to play in midfield and clearly had orders to shadow Argentine playmaker Lionel Messi.
Argentina had equalled their longest winning streak at a World Cup with their 1-0 victory over Belgium in the quarter-finals, but all five of those wins were by one-goal margins and they were even less creative without the injured Angel di Maria.
Four-time World Player of the Year Messi, who was kept quiet by his standards, did test Cillessen with a free kick early on while Ezequiel Garay stooped to head a corner over the bar under pressure from Vlaar but chances were few in a dire first half.
The second period was equally cautious as the Dutch failed to record a shot on target for the entire 90 minutes before Arjen Robben burst into the box in the dying moments, only to be denied by Javier Mascherano's well-timed block.
Argentina substitute Rodrigo Palacio missed a gilt-edged chance in the second period of extra time when he broke clear and his tame header was held comfortably by a relieved Cillessen before Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir called for the shootout.
Vlaar, who took the first spot kick, said nerves did not affect him and that his penalty simply was not good enough.
"It really hurts, a dream which gets put out," he said. "In the penalty I wasn't nervous, I concentrated. When you take one you have to score, and that didn't happen, so it wasn't good enough."
After Vlaar's miss, Arjen Robben scored for the Dutch, Romero then made a stunning save from Sneijder before Dirk Kuyt scored the Netherlands' fourth kick.
Argentina made no mistake from the spot with Messi, Garay, Sergio Aguero and Rodriguez confidently firing home.
"A competition is about first place, everyone knows that, being fifth or sixth is nothing," said Van Gaal.
"I didn't have the feeling in the second half that we would lose. And when it comes to penalties you know it's a lottery."
The Netherlands are now left to play Brazil in the third place playoff match in Brasilia on Saturday.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)