When Argentina needed a prayer answered, they called on an Angel. In the 118th minute, Angel Di Maria scored to give Argentina a 1-0 win over Switzerland and a place in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals.
The round of 16 was high on drama and low on scoring. No team scored more than two goals, and half of the games went to at least extra time.
Two of those four matches were on Tuesday, with Belgium following Argentina's lead and beating their opponents in extra time as well.
Discussing the performance of the United States is difficult to do without sounding too patronizing. They did in fact fight extremely hard to fend off a constant Belgian attack but ran out of gas at the end. There's no shame in losing to a team that's better.
All in all, Tuesday was a fitting conclusion to a thrilling round of 16.
Round of 16 Results
|June 28||Brazil||1-1 (3-2 on pen.)||Chile|
|June 29||Costa Rica||1-1 (5-3 on pen.)||Greece|
|June 30||Germany||2-1 (aet)||Algeria|
|July 1||Belgium||2-1 (aet)||United States|
|July 4||12 p.m. ET; 5 p.m. BST||France||Germany||FRA 3-1|
|July 4||4 p.m. ET; 9 p.m. BST||Brazil||Colombia||BRA 3-2|
|July 5||12 p.m. ET; 5 p.m. BST||Argentina||Belgium||ARG 2-0|
|July 5||4 p.m. ET; 9 p.m. BST||Netherlands||Costa Rica||NED 2-1|
Day 20 Recap
Can you imagine how much crap Lionel Messi would've gotten if Argentina had lost to Switzerland? Anything less than a World Cup title is a disappointment in many people's eyes. Should La Albiceleste exit at any point prior to that, it will be viewed as Messi's fault.
That pressure is weighing on him, and so far, he's channeled it in a positive way. Although Di Maria scored the winner, the Barcelona attacker earned Man of the Match honors, via WhoScored.com:
He played a major part in the goal, continuing what's been a very strong World Cup for him individually. Messi even caught the attention of LeBron James:
Heard Messi made the game winning pass! That's my type of play/er. Win, loss, draw u make the right play to help your team be successful— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 1, 2014
After the win over Switzerland, the 27-year-old seemed more relieved that excited, per FIFA.com:
The main thing is that we’re through. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Time was going by and we didn’t want to go to penalties – we wanted to win the game. As for the goal, my first thought was to go for it myself, but then I saw Di Maria appear and I decided to play him in. Fortunately, he was able to put it away. That’s football and today luck was on our side. We have to make the most of it and keep on going.
As a whole, Argentina really struggled to break down a tough Swiss defense. The South American giants haven't really looked their best throughout the tournament, and many thought Tuesday would be the day that it happened.
Instead, Argentina labored through a close win, much as they did in their three group-stage matches. There's something to be said for a team that knows how to grind out close results. It may sound cliche and reductive, but that's the sign of a championship-caliber team.
Diego Maradona's Argentina were arguably more fun to watch, but they lacked tactical organization on the pitch necessary to topple top sides. Alejandro Sabella ensured that's no longer a problem.
La Albiceleste will meet Belgium after their late victory over the United States.
As much as fans in the States are heartbroken over their team losing in the knockout stages, even the most ardent of U.S. supporters have to admit that Belgium were far and away the better team. According to WhoScored.com, they had 39 shots, 17 of which were on target.
The only reason the United States were in the match was the performance of Tim Howard. His 16 saves were the most in a World Cup match in 50 years, per ESPN Stats & Info's Paul Carr:
WhoScored.com awarded him a perfect 10 rating, only the second one they've handed out in the World Cup:
Tim Howard: Is just the second player in World Cup 2014 to receive a perfect 10 rating in a match; the other being Oscar (vs Croatia) #usa— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) July 1, 2014
The only reason the United States may have deserved to win this match was so as not to waste one of the best goalkeeping performances you'll ever see at the World Cup. And that's not an exaggeration. Time and again, Howard was there to answer his call.
Since the U.S. couldn't muster much of an attack, Belgium were able to push high up the pitch and maintain consistent pressure on the American back line, and sooner or later, Howard wasn't going to be there to save the day.
Who advances to the semifinals?
Once Kevin De Bruyne scored Belgium's first goal in extra time, you knew the match was only ending one way. Romelu Lukaku's goal 12 minutes later all but affirmed Belgium would be going through. Julian Green made it interesting, but the United States simply couldn't unlock a determined Belgian defense.
The Argentina-Belgium match could be the best of the quarterfinals. Both teams have tons of attacking talent but have instead opted for a more pragmatic approach. Neither side has been fun to watch, but each has demonstrated an ability to get the necessary result.
You don't get extra points for beauty, so Marc Wilmots and Sabella have been more than happy to win ugly.
What this match might lack in goals will be more than made up for with tactical intrigue.