Argentina vs. Belgium: 6 Things We Learned
Argentina became the third team to advance to the World Cup semi-finals as Gonzalo Higuain's solitary goal was enough to beat Belgium in Brasilia.
The Napoli forward fired home a fine effort from the edge of the penalty area just eight minutes into the clash, establishing an Argentina lead that they had to work hard to hold on to.
Higuain could have doubled that advantage, only to hit the crossbar in the second half, and despite a strong late Belgium rally which saw Marouane Fellaini head over the top and Romelu Lukaku threaten after he came off the bench, the South Americans kept hold of their 1-0 advantage and made it into Wednesday's semi-final.
Here are the lessons we learned from the clash.
Lionel Messi Sets the Tone for His Team Even When He Doesn't Shine
Lionel Messi wasn't at his sparkling best here, but sometimes he doesn't really need to be.
As was witnessed at one point in the first half when Fellaini hacked away at him four or five times on the edge of the Belgium penalty area, opposing players seem to go into a trance when they face him.
Messi was dropping a little deeper than usual in the first half, once to staggering effect when he produced a stunning pass for Angel di Maria, and the Belgians seemed more concerned with keeping an eye on him than setting their own pace in the game.
That allowed for Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia to strangle their opposition in midfield, and the tone for the game was set.
Gonzalo Higuain Is Still Crucial to Argentina's Challenge
When you play for Argentina and you're not Messi, you're pretty much guaranteed to suffer by comparison, and following the injury to Sergio Aguero, Higuain must have been suffering more than most.
The Napoli forward is a clinical finisher on his day, though, and his day just hadn't arrived yet.
His moment here came early on—in the eighth minute, and when the ball sat up for him in such an inviting fashion there was only ever going to be one outcome, regardless of his form. Higuain remains vitally important in his team's challenge.
Divock Origi Is Still Very Much on the Raw Side
It was a big call from Belgium coach Marc Wilmots to once again leave out Lukaku and start with the 19-year-old forward Divock Origi, who probably wouldn't even be at the tournament had Christian Benteke not been injured.
Wilmots' faith in the talented teenager is admirable, but Origi was always going to be up against it playing against defenders as hardened and experienced as Ezequiel Garay and Martin Demichelis.
There's no doubt Origi will one day fill out and gain the power to be able to brush off such challenges, but here he looked as though he was somewhat lost, with Belgium noticeably improving once Lukaku came on to replace him just before the hour mark.
Argentina Will Need a More Effective Way of Replacing Angel di Maria
If the injury which forced Di Maria off the pitch in the first half proves to be one that will keep him out of the semi-final and beyond, then Argentina will need to find a more effective way of replacing him.
Enzo Perez, who came on for him in the 33rd minute, did a decent enough job, but he doesn't have the thrust of the Real Madrid man, nor the ability to pin opponents back with his electric pace.
In a World Cup that's seen the likes of Arjen Robben and Di Maria himself excel doing just that, Argentina may just have lost one of their most effective weapons.
Eden Hazard Had a Disappointing World Cup
This proved to be the latest in a line of disappointing World Cup displays for Eden Hazard, who has been unable to reproduce his Chelsea form at any time in Brazil.
Now he exits feeling as though the tournament has passed him by.
Stationed on the Belgium left for the first hour of the contest, he never really got the better of Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta, while the same can be said after he moved into the centre in the game's latter third and found himself in a position occupied by Mascherano.
Having been given the big buildup heading into the tournament, Hazard disappointed.
'Just Doing Enough' Could Win Argentina the World Cup
We've seen some great football in Brazil, but we have not really seen a great team, although Colombia performed above expectations.
Increasingly, it is hard work which is proving crucial to teams' hopes of success at the tournament, as establishing early leads and then looking to control the game—something which happened in the two quarter-finals before this one—becomes so important.
Argentina can do that as well as anybody, and it is this quality over attractive football which now becomes so important.
Display that hard work two more times and they could be champions.
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