Energized Argentina enters semifinal clash vs. Holland with high spirits
JUL 07, 2014 8:21a ET
SAO PAULO --
Gonzalo Higuain's goal against Belgium on Saturday was vital, not just because it was he match winner for Argentina, but because it seemed to jolt the forward back into form. It ended a six-game goal drought, the longest of his international career, but just as significant was what followed, a fine demonstration of the art of leading the line, culminating in the barreling run in which he nutmegged Belgian defender Vincent Kompany and was denied a superb second goal only by the crossbar.
There was a confidence about him that had been absent in the early rounds, perhaps because he wasn't fully fit as he recovered from a muscular problem. "He ran a lot, he helped his teammates a lot, and he scored a very important goal," said Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella. "That's what you expect from strikers."
As a result of his burgeoning self-belief, Higuain played with aggression and brio, relieving the pressure on Lionel Messi who, in turn, was able to drop deeper, taking on a more traditional playmaking role. Higuain's apparent return to form is a rare bit of good news for Argentina, which has lost Angel di Maria to a thigh injury sustained in the quarterfinal win over Belgium. He will not return for the rest of the tournament, which leaves Argentina without a player to bridge the gap between midfield and attack. The Benfica midfielder Enzo Perez came in for him on Saturday but, although he had a fine season, he is a far less creative player than di Maria.
With Sergio Aguero also struggling for fitness, that places great onus on Ezequiel Lavezzi to play a shuttling role on the left, linking the midfield four with the front two, transforming 4-4-2 into 4-3-3. He has not had the best tournament so far, probably because of a calf injury that has been hampering him since the opening game, but Sabella has few other options. He could use Rodrigo Palacio alongside Higuain, and play Messi almost as an old-fashioned No. 10 in a 4-3-1-2, which would at least appease the traditionalists, or he could bring in Ricky Alvarez on the left. The Internazionale winger, though, is wildly inconsistent and was surely included in the squad as an impact substitute rather than somebody who might start.
The other major question is at left back where Marcos Rojo might be replaced by Jose Maria Basanta. Although the Monterrey defender, who is essentially a converted centerback, coped well against Kevin Mirallas on Saturday. However, Arjen Robben running at him is an entirely different prospect. Argentina's defense as a whole lacks pace and for that reason the likelihood is that Sabella will sit the back four deep and look to counter-attack, as his side was able to do against Belgium, having taken an early lead. The Dutch, though, have themselves preferred to counter-attack in this tournament, their main attacking weapon being precisely that pace of Robben. There is a real prospect of a stand-off in Sao Paulo with both sides reluctant to commit men to the attack.
''We know that we will play against one of the best teams when it comes to counterattacks because of the speed of their men up front,'' Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano said. ''So we have to take precautions to not give them the possibility to counterattack, to always be well positioned, to not lose balls unnecessarily in areas where there's a lot of risk.''
That, perhaps, would suit Argentina. When it comes to unlocking a tight game, there's nobody better than Messi. Although he didn't add to his four successive man-of-the-match awards against Belgium, he had a decisive influence again. Argentina may not have hit top form as yet, but they have won all five games so far. This is Argentina's first semifinal since 1990 and the sense is mounting that this will be Messi's tournament in the same way 1986 was Diego Maradona's.
This is the first time since 1990 that Argentina has beaten anybody other than Mexico in a World Cup knockout game without recourse to penalties. "I tell everybody," said Mascherano, no longer captain but still the most vocal player, before kickoff on Saturday. "I'm sick of eating crap. I want happiness for those who support us. Let's go out and play the game of our lives." It was a speech born of the frustration of 24 years of underperformance, perhaps of the realization that sooner or later the token will dry up and for the generation that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2005, this is the greatest chance of success.
Marc Wilmots, the Belgium coach, dismissed Argentina as "ordinary" in a grouchy press-conference after the quarterfinal and to an extent it is. But it is ordinary with Messi and a sense of unfolding destiny and in a World Cup without one great team, that may just be enough.