Gonzalo Higuaín finally made his mark in Brazil to score an early goal against Belgium and send Argentina through to their first World Cup semifinal in 24 years with a 1-0 win in Brasilia.
Criticized for their dependence on Lionel Messi so far in this tournament, Argentina got a most welcome contribution from another of their immensely talented forward line to give Alejandro Sabella’s side what proved to be a decisive advantage after just eight minutes. Unsurprisingly Messi was again involved, but Higuaín’s finish after the ball deflected into this path was devastatingly clinical.
While not spectacular, Argentina produced its most coherent and assured performance of the World Cup to date to see off the challenge of a talented but directionless Belgium. It comes as a major blow to Sabella then that the player who gave the strongest signs of being able to provide Messi with the support required to go all the way in Brazil, Angel di Maria, was forced off in the first half with an apparent thigh injury.
Argentina now face an anxious wait to see if the Real Madrid man can recover to take part in a semifinal next Wednesday against either the Netherlands or Costa Rica. Still, regardless of Di Maria’s participation, it is a match that they should go into with confidence. Belgium, meanwhile, head home having gone further than they had in any World Cup since 1986, yet having frustratingly failed to realize the ability of a talented generation of players. What little strategy there was concentrated on hitting hopeful balls forward to Marouane Fellaini, while there was an over-reliance on individual moments of magic of which, with Eden Hazard a major disappointment, their simply weren’t enough.
While starting as a midfielder alongside Axel Witsel, Fellaini was from the off repeatedly ambling forward to the edge of the box to try and get on the end of lofted balls. It left their midfield dangerously open, especially with the greatest player of this generation eager to take advantage. While Switzerland had come up with a strategy to frustrate Messi in the Round of 16, there was no such plan here. Belgium had already been handed a warning in just the third minute when Messi broke through the middle and found Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left before the move broke down. Next time Belgium would not escape.
Messi again found space between the lines and, after wriggling away from the pressure when it eventually arrived, he picked out Di Maria to his right. The winger’s pass deflected away from its intended target, but dropped perfectly for Higuaín on the edge of the box. With Belgium captain Vincent Kompany wrong-footed, the striker had the space to drill a first-time shot into the corner of the net.
There was almost a repeat occurrence later in the first half. Messi put Di Maria through with a wondrous pass, but, having cut back onto his favored left foot, he had his shot blocked. It was in that action that Di Maria suffered an injury that forced him to submit to being replaced, despite giving it a second try to play on.
With the less attack-minded Enzo Perez coming on, Argentina lost much of their attacking thrust from the 30th minute onward. Yet, unlike in previous matches, Argentina were able to rely on their shape and discipline without the ball, thanks in part to first starts of the World Cup for Martin Demichelis in defense and Lucas Biglia in midfield.
Belgium, while coming stronger into the game, were restricted to just one shot on target in the opening half -- a 25 yard effort from the quiet Kevin de Bruyne that Sergio Romero parried to safety. There was not an awful lot more threat from Belgium after the break. The crosses of left-back Jan Vertonghen remained their best weapon, which is some indictment of the likes of Hazard, De Bruyne and Dries Mertens, as well as the nous of their coach. Regardless, Fellaini probably should have found the net with a header from one Vertonghen cross that he directed over the crossbar.
While happy to sit back, Argentina retained a threat on the break. The confidence that a first goal of the World Cup had infused into Higuaín was obvious as the Napoli star came close to adding to his tally. First he cut back inside from the byline on the left and struck a shot that was deflected just wide, before he put the ball through the legs of Kompany to get one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois in the Belgium goal and was disappointed to see his effort strike the crossbar.
Things became nervier than Sabella will have liked in the closing stages as Belgium’s approach became even more direct. Still it was Argentina which created the best chance and Messi will be disappointed not to have added to his four goals in this World Cup when being denied by Courtois despite being clean through on goal. But having already ended a disappointing run of early World Cup exits, Argentina are now looking ever more like potential champions.