No-Frills Argentina Take Another Giant Step Towards World Cup Glory

Daniel EdwardsFeatured ColumnistJuly 5, 2014

Argentina's Lionel Messi and teammates celebrate at the end of the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Argentina and Belgium at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday, July 5, 2014. Argentina won 1-0. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Eraldo Peres/Associated Press

The current World Cup campaign for Argentina could not be more different from that which preceded it four years ago. In South Africa, the whole world was talking about Diego Maradona's antics on the side of the pitch, as well as a team with an almost kamikaze attitude to the game. 

The 2010 Albiceleste had one setting, attack at all costs. Like their coach, they lived, and eventually died by the sword. 

Fast forward to Brazil, and once more the team's mentality is reflected in the man giving directions from the bench. Coach Alejandro Sabella is not a personality easily picked up by the media. Not for him the wild accusations and affirmations, and the glare of the cameras. 

El Pachorra is a humble, timid, almost bumbling figure in the background of his side's progress. The team copies his actions. They have advanced to the semi-finals of the World Cup almost unnoticed by those outside Argentina, quietly racking up narrow victories that have not exactly set the pulse racing. 

But there is one more crucial difference. At this stage of the competition four years ago, Maradona's men were preparing their bags for the trip home after a devastating thrashing at the hands of Germany; but in 2014, Argentina have slowly but surely assured their place among the four best teams on the planet. 

An early volley by Gonzalo Higuain secured a 1-0 victory over Belgium on Saturday, according to the statistics. But the game represented much more than that. For the first time since 1990, the Albiceleste did not shirk the challenge of the last eight. 

Sabella's changes for the game were an almost unqualified success. Lucas Biglia entered in midfield for Fernando Gago, and proved a revelation with his marking and efficient passing. Javier Mascherano had the partner he needed in the engine room to nullify the dangerous Belgium before they could get moving. On the left, meanwhile, Jose Basanta slotted in without any problems for the suspended Marcos Rojo, and did his job to perfection. 

By the end of the tie, the normally fluid Belgians were reduced to smashing the ball into the box, desperately seeking the head of giant Marouane Fellaini for the chance to work their way back into the game. But even that did not come off.

Martin Demichelis gave Argentina a new security and confidence at the back as he replaced the calamitous Federico Fernandez, and even though he and Ezequiel Garay were often dwarfed by their opponents, the pair put in an almost flawless 90 minutes of defensive play. 

Higuain was almost unrecognisable from the forlorn figure of the first four games, as he put in easily his best game of the tournament. Lionel Messi was marked throughout by the incessant Axel Witsel, but his jinking and jiving in the middle opened up the game for the only goal early on, and only nemesis Thibaut Courtois prevented him from making the result safe in the final minutes. 

Eraldo Peres/Associated Press

There are still questions to be resolved before Argentina can talk about the World Cup as more than a distant dream. Angel Di Maria scared an entire nation when he limped off in the first half and sat on the sidelines with an abductor injury. Substitute Enzo Perez did an admirable job, but the Real Madrid star's unpredictability and movement are irreplaceable in the Argentine set-up. 

If examinations show that Fideo will miss the next match, Sabella will have to think hard on how to compensate for one of the few players in his squad that has shown the ability to really unlock a defence in Brazil. 

But those worries are for the coming days. The Argentina squad celebrated joyfully on the pitch of the Estadio Mane Garrincha at full time, repeating from their hearts the songs thrown at them from the thousands of fans present to watch their victory. Merely reaching the last four, after 24 years of disappointment, means everything to the long-suffering Albiceleste. 

But more than that, taking down a team of Belgium's quality is another giant step towards their goals for captain Messi and his united squad. The Argentine play may not be setting off too many fireworks so far, but with the minimum of fuss and drama they are honing in on a date with the Maracana just over a week from now.