BRASILIA, Brazil — During the last few weeks, most of the big motivational talk from Alejandro Sabella has been about the solidity of the squad. The strength of the group, the necessity of everybody working for each other, that nobody should doubt—even if they had not been impressive.
Argentina had been lacking spark, and chances were at a premium, so Sabella has been asking his team to compensate by working hard to recover the ball, to kill any spaces, to help those that make mistakes. It hasn't been pretty, but the criticism coming from home is wrong—Argentina are not playing badly. The talk of them not having style is wrong. They do, it is just that nobody likes it.
Where will Argentina finish at the World Cup?
Argentinean commentators and fans are in search of a utopia. Not a new place they haven’t been, and would like to aspire to, but one where they think they have always been, and it is where they belong.
They mention the ‘86 World Cup as the reference point, as the football paradise. But in other conversations, they would say that Diego Maradona won it on his own and the team was terrible. Which one is it? Sabella is right when he talks about a country that thinks it is bigger than it is.
Meanwhile, Leo Messi is oblivious to those debates. He hardly trains, as the sessions are light and focused on recuperation. And when he goes on the pitch and reads a FIFA statement against discrimination, and the stadium Estadio Nacional in Brasilia whistles him, it is as if he is deaf.
The perfect state of mind to overcome an obstacle that is growing in the Argentinean psyche—the last time the team got to a World Cup semi-final was Italia '90.
They are there now following a 1-0 win over Belgium.
And they have gotten there without a good generation of centre-backs. Clearly exposed in the system used by Sabella, without a replacement for Javier Mascherano and with three of the forwards in delicate physical form, it is all left to the Flea.
Belgium were told they were the dark horse. A lot has been written about their methods, but they were only applied in youth football too recently to have the impact of creating such a good generation of players. I believe it is down more to a cycle where good players come about every 40 years or so, or even a spontaneous generation, the second one in 40 years. You choose.
The temperature was better than during previous matches, especially in the shade, but much hotter in the Belgium half with the sun, and very dry.
The main surprise in the Argentina 4-2-3-1 line-up was the inclusion of Lucas Biglia, who has more dynamism and defensive work ethic than Fernando Gago.
The Albicelestes certainly seemed more comfortable with the light Belgium pressure; they had more time with the ball, they were authoritarian from the beginning, wanting the ball, and dictating a slow tempo.
In fact, before Belgium had made any impact, Biglia recovered the ball before the nine-minute mark and found Messi, who attracted the attention of the midfielders. He managed to drive the ball forward to Angel Di Maria. His pass was poor, but the deflection fell to Gonzalo Higuain. For a player who has not scored for his country in almost a year, his strike was crisp and unerring, and it put Argentina ahead.
A few minutes later, news filtered through that the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, 88, and one of the top-five players ever, had suffered a heart attack and had to be taken to hospital. All football eyes were on Argentina for good and bad reasons.
BREAKING NEWS: Alfredo Di Stefano hospitalized in serious conditions after an heart attack— Tancredi Palmeri (@tancredipalmeri) July 5, 2014
The game was exactly as the Albicelestes were scripting it to be. Mascherano, a leader on and off the pitch, the guy that spends longer in the mixed zones after games than anyone, a top defensive midfielder, as he showed today, and a poor-centre back, was sweeping up everything that came his way. He provided defensive solidity that was needed.
The overall display was one which impressed coach Sabella, per Fifa.com: "Our performance was excellent tactically, strategically and in how a team should behave, with team-mates putting themselves on the line for each other."
Messi demonstrated his genius with a pass few could have produced. Collecting the ball in his own half, Messi saw Di Maria gallop into space and delayed his pass just long enough to suck in Belgian defenders. Di Maria’s shot was blocked, and in the act of shooting, he picked up a thigh injury that forced him off. A great moment followed by an unfortunate one for Argentina.
Enzo Perez replaced Di Maria—solidity replacing the ability to create chaos.
Argentina were less threatening without Di Maria, with Messi still playing from deep. But they still controlled the tempo. That was as much to do with Belgium’s lack of execution as Argentina’s quality.
Marc Wilmots’ Belgium failed to find the combinations to break the solid lines of their rival, with six behind the ball. Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel have not got the vision to decide how the team has to play. Neither could they steal balls early because they were chasing Messi’s shadow. Also, disappointingly for Belgium, there was no sign of Eden Hazard. So good for Chelsea, so bad for Belgium.
Eden Hazard is probably sitting at home furious he didn't get picked to play at the World Cup. Wait...oh..— Bearded FC (@BeardedFC) July 5, 2014
A header by Fellaini after a cross from Jan Vertonghen seemed to show the way for Belgium. Romelu Lukaku came on for the anonymous Divock Origi, and Belgium briefly threatened but could not deny Argentina.
Sabella's men are now one game from the final. In the other half of the draw, so are Brazil. The crowd in Brasilia were well aware of this.
Every Argentinean chant was followed by a reminder that they are in Brazil. This rivalry is only comparable to Celtic-Rangers. A final with both of them would be extraordinary…and dangerous.