By Annika Breidthardt
LONDON (Reuters) - World champions Argentina beat Britain's women hockey team 2-1 on Wednesday to set up a London Olympics gold medal final against reigning champions the Netherlands, who squeezed past New Zealand in a thrilling penalty shootout.
Argentina dominated hosts Britain throughout much of the semi-final, in which Las Leonas treated the 16,000 strong crowd to a display of magnificent stick and passing skills, while Britain often struggled to string their passes together.
"We played a very good game today and in the final we will beat a very good team," said Argentine skipper Luciana Aymar, a record seven-time world player of the year, who has won everything but Olympic gold. "It would be a dream come true."
Just five minutes into the game, Argentina's Noel Barrionuevo flicked a penalty corner through British defender Crista Cullen's legs for the 1-0 lead.
With three minutes to go before half-time, Aymar, having won a ball back from four British players ran down the left touchline, passed to Carla Rebecchi, who took it down the baseline and, falling over the British goalkeeper's legs, pushed the ball into the goal for the halftime 2-0 lead.
Britain's players surrounded the umpire claiming there had been an obstruction in the lead-up to the goal but there was no change of decision.
"Everyone knew, the millions on TV, 16,000 in the crowd, 22 players on the pitch, everyone, but unfortunately, with the law as it is written, it couldn't be referred (to a video umpire)," Britain's coach Danny Kerry said.
Teams can call on a video referral for offences in the last quarter of the pitch, but the obstruction happened near halfway.
Britain, who played much more offensively in the second half, grabbed a goal back when Alex Danson scored with just six minutes to go, deflecting a hard pass across the circle from Helen Richardson, but their last-minute rally came too late.
"We have lived to be (competing for) gold for four years. It's not going to happen for us this time but it will one day and I will be a part of this team when it does," said Danson, speaking through tears.
"The gold for us is now bronze and we won't leave the field till we've got it. The Kiwis won't be able to catch us."
The Dutch were lucky to advance to the final, needing a penalty shootout against New Zealand, who held the Beijing champions to a 2-2 draw after extra time.
New Zealand twice held the lead, but Dutch skipper Maartje Paumen, in her 150th international, equalised each time with a penalty corner. Paumen bagged 11 goals in Beijing but had not scored before the semi-final in London.
"I don't care who we play. If it's GB, good for them. I'll get energy from their cheering home crowd too. I'd love that," said Netherlands' Naomi van As, who took the first penalty.
The incident-packed game included an injury to New Zealand forward Katie Glynn who was accidentally whacked on the head as Ellen Hoog tried to shoot on goal. Glynn fell to the ground and, blood dripping down her face, was led off the field.
She returned to play in the second half, her head heavily bandaged, having received what she described as "a couple of stitches and staples" to the wound.
"We're so disappointed with how it ended but we've got to pull ourselves up now for the bronze game," said Glynn, who said she was feeling dizzy after being hit but considered the injury "all part of the game."
After a goalless extra time, two lots of 7-1/2 minutes with a golden goal rule, five players from each team had eight seconds to enter the circle and put the ball past the keeper in the penalty shootout, an Olympic novelty in London.
Dutch goalkeeper Joyce Sombroek pulled off three penalty saves to set up Hoog to secure the Netherlands a third successive Olympic final berth.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)