Argentina edged a rugged Belgium side 1-0 behind a goal from Gonzalo Higuain to earn a place in the World Cup semifinal for the first time since 1990 on Saturday.
”Since the first game of this World Cup I said I was calm, that the goals would come. It came and at an important moment,” Higuain said. ”It’s been so many years since we made it to the semifinals. Now we did.”
Los Albicelestes had not looked at all impressive coming into this game. They wandered through the group stage looking less than the sum of their parts, and then turned in a dire performance against Switzerland, a game saved thanks to timely intervention from Lionel Messi. Belgium, on the other hand, swarmed all over the United States, forcing keeper Tim Howard to make 16 saves and making the case that they are indeed one of Europe’s best sides.
But here on the steppes of Brasilia at the Mane Garrincha, it was Argentina that came out looking the sharper, shrugging off their woes and making a statement that they really were a favorite to win the World Cup after all. Messi and Ezequiel Lavezzi were involved early on, with them forcing Vincent Kompany into a critical block just two minutes into the match.
Six minutes later, Messi would help pick the lock. Leaping onto a rare mistake from Kompany, he pushed the ball up and then wide to a waiting Angel di Maria. Di Maria cut inside and then shot the ball in, but saw it take a big deflection off Jan Vertonghen. That rooted keeper Thibaut Courtois and allowed Higuain to collect the ball in space to turn and volley it into the net.
Lavezzi and Higuain both looked like changed men in this match, on target and incisive, always looking for the ball out wide. Argentina’s plan at that point was to allow Belgium to have the ball and try to catch them for a second on the counter, and for a good half hour, it was working well. Sergio Romero was only seriously troubled once, when Kevin De Bruyne let go with a stinger from 35 yards in the 26th minute. Every time Belgium roamed forward, Messi was able to collect and release a cutting ball out wide to either Lavezzi or di Maria, putting the forwards in one on one situations with Kompany, often the last man back.
But in the 28th minute, that plan collapsed. Di Maria would up and took a shot on goal that Kompany blocked away. He then took a few steps, grimaced and went to the turf with an apparent quad injury. He tried to carry on but could not, and he had to be hauled off on the half hour. It is potentially a significant blow to Argentina’s hopes as Sergio Aguero is already out for an undetermined period of time.
With that, Argentina was forced to change their tactics, building out of midfield and hoping to keep Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard off the ball. Messi had a good sight of goal with a dangerous free-kick in the 40th after Marouane Fellaini clumsily fouled him, but put the ball just high and wide.
Little changed after the break, with Belgium looking increasingly lost while Argentina continued to press. Higuain saw his shot deflected just wide by Daniel van Buyten in the 49th, and then beat Kompany cleanly with a driving run, only to see the crossbar block his shot five minutes later.
Marc Wilmots decided he’d seen enough off on the hour mark, throwing on the big Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens for Kevin Mirallas and young Divock Origi. And that did start to heap the pressure on. Belgium started to gain traction down the flanks, with Fellaini having a half chance or two, and the Red Devils finally starting to gain a foothold in the center of the park. And given Belgium’s penchant for scoring late at this World Cup, that had the Argentine fans chewing their fingernails.
But the Belgians lacked any sort of real guile. Eden Hazard had a disastrous World Cup, and when he was hauled off in the 75th after another invisible game, it was hard not to think that their chances were heading out with him. Some of that was due to Argentina’s organization — they were sharp and drilled today, in contrast to many of their previous games — and some of that was due to the Belgians’ understandable fear of Messi. Unwilling to move too many numbers forward, they were unable to create overloads on the flank, and the end result was one too many shots taken by the ham-footed Fellaini — and none taken by either Hazard or Origi.
”I think if we had equalized in the last few minutes, they are dead, they are finished,” Wilmots said.
That said, Argentina have a player who even when he’s not playing well, seems to make the winning play each game. Having Messi helps — and he may just lead this Argentina team to glory.
”They played an excellent match,” Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella said of his team after the victory. ”After 24 years, we can be among the four best teams in the world. At least we lived up to the minimum objective.”