Argentina booked their passage to the semi-finals of the World Cup with a 1-0 win over Belgium in Brasilia on Saturday.
It wasn’t a sizzling, free-flowing advert for attacking football, but it was a thoroughly professional performance built on Gonzalo Higuain’s early goal.
Belgium had ample chance to get back into the game, but they lacked the zip in the final third despite having the attacking qualities of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne on the field.
Lionel Messi carried Argentina to the quarter-finals, and the first glimpse of the Barcelona superstar arrived on three minutes when he gathered the ball in his own half and advanced at pace.
After drawing players to him, Messi slipped the ball to Ezequiel Lavezzi in space on the left. It was a good opening for the Paris Saint-Germain man, but he was wasteful with his cross.
Belgium were guilty of ceding possession in sloppy fashion early on, and they were made to pay a heavy price for that on eight minutes.
Captain Vincent Kompany carried the ball out from the back but was dispossessed. Messi moved the ball to Angel Di Maria, who went in search of Pablo Zabaleta with his pass.
Di Maria’s pass was not great, but it flicked off a defender into the path of Higuain, who unleashed a first-time strike across Thibaut Courtois and into the corner to put Argentina in front.
Absolutely clinical finish from the Napoli man: https://t.co/Hr6OcgBHCX— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) July 5, 2014
Argentina looked fairly comfortable in the opening half an hour, but keeper Sergio Romero was called into action to keep out a 20-yard drive from De Bruyne.
Alejandro Sabella was forced into a reshuffle on 33 minutes as Di Maria left the pitch with what appeared a thigh strain. He seemed to have gotten hurt when attempting to latch onto a glorious ball beyond the Belgian defence from Messi.
Neymar was kicked out of the tournament the previous evening, while James Rodriguez will be nursing a number of bruises from the same encounter—as the flair players were afforded little protection by the officials.
The same issues were in evidence in Brasilia as Belgium were prepared to shackle Messi by fair means or foul.
They almost paid the price five minutes before the break. Messi eventually went down from the fourth kick on his ankle, before dusting himself down and firing a free-kick just over the top.
Belgium's Messi strategy: Just keep kicking him until something happens.— Brooks Peck (@BrooksDT) July 5, 2014
Argentina carried a threat into the second half, with Lavezzi on two occasions making short work of his marker and whipping in decent crosses which just eluded their intended targets.
Higuain went within a whisker of doubling his and his side’s tally on 55 minutes.
A fine run saw him beat Kompany, leaving him faced with only Courtois. The Napoli forward put his foot through the ball but his effort hit the bar and went over the top.
Belgium created little in the opening hour, but they carry a threat, and a fine cross from Jan Vertonghen presented a decent headed chance for Marouane Fellaini. However, he failed to divert the ball on target. For a player of his aerial prowess, it was a poor effort.
Argentina failed to kill the contest off—Messi squandered a great chance at the death which kept Belgium in the hunt and Axel Witsel fired over in injury time, but Sabella’s side held firm to book their place in the last four.
Messi and company will now be able to put their feet up and see how the fourth quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica plays out.
They will face the winner of that game in the last four, and Sabella’s men will be quietly confident about their chances, as they have worked their way through in a professional rather than spectacular manner. But they have Messi in their ranks, and anything is possible with him on the field.
|Argentina Player Ratings|
|Player||1st-half Rating||2nd-half Rating|
|Angel Di Maria||7||-|
|Belgium Player Ratings|
|Player||1st-half Rating||2nd-half Rating|
|Daniel van Buyten||6||6.5|
|Kevin De Bruyne||6.5||6|
With a place in the last four in the bag, Sabella will not allow his players to take their foot off the gas, per Fifa.com.
I feel really pleased for this squad, who’ve lived up to our footballing history, for all the coaching staff, for our families. I think that, in terms of the balance we showed and the football we played, it was our best match so far.
We’ve achieved our minimum objective, which was to reach the last four, but we want more. That’s what we’ve come for.