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World Cup 2014: Argentina into semi-finals at expense of Belgium

Gonzalo Higuaín, left, celebrates putting Argentina 1-0 up in their World Cup quarter-final with Belgium. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Fifa via Getty Images

Argentina have burst through the psychological barrier flung down too often in the last eight of this tournament’s recent history. Where they had stumbled at this stage in recent World Cups, deflated and defeated just as they had dared to believe a third title might be theirs, now those in sky blue and white will march on São Paulo on Wednesday to contest a semi-final for the first time in 24 years. They will travel south with conviction bolstered.

It was a reminder of their qualities, a streetwise display of rugged teamwork adorned with flashes of spell-binding skill and vision from Lionel Messi. The captain’s 91st cap, drawing him level with Diego Maradona, was denied a goal by Thibaut Courtois in stoppage time but his influence remained considerable even if others, from Javier Mascherano in midfield to Gonzalo Higuaín in attack, hoisted their own game to ensure that Belgium could rarely impose themselves on the occasion. There were frantic moments at the end where the Argentine defence creaked, as if panicked they might be undone again as in their three quarter-finals since Italia 90, but the whistle brought relief.

This had been an opportunity for Argentina to make a proper statement at these finals against opponents brimming with flair and pace, if little experience of this stage of the competition. Improvement had been demanded back home, concern chorused in all quarters that the South Americans had become far too reliant upon Messi. If the playmaker’s eye-catching contributions were to be celebrated then others in this team, most notably those across the forward line, had to make an impact with previous performances too stodgy for comfort. Maradona, inevitably, had aired his frustrations. “It seems to me that Argentina today has no idea,” he had said. “My team [in South Africa four years ago] were a lot more offensive than this one. It looks bleak for us, if I’m honest.”

Such criticisms, whether justified or not, can sting. Alejandro Sabella had worn a rather haggard look in the build-up, growling through his pre-match media duties and peering out at the doubting throng from beneath a baseball cap. This nation carries such hefty expectations to every World Cup but, in Brazil, the pressures could hardly be more intense.

The coach made a trio of changes here, restoring Martín Demichelis and Lucas Biglia – known to the Belgians from his time at Anderlecht – to the starting lineup in an attempt to find some measure of balance. The latter had been considered a weak link by some, a player short of pace but metronomic in shifting possession across midfield, yet something did click. They had still attempted to tap into Messi’s genius at every opportunity – there was one mind-boggling flurry of close-control as Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Daniel Van Buyten and Fellaini again snapped at his ankles on the edge of the Belgian box – but there was more fluency and purpose to their collective approach for long periods.

The loss of Ángel di María to a thigh complaint just after the half-hour mark did disrupt their rhythm though, by then, the Argentines led. Their advantage stemmed from an error by Vincent Kompany, noteworthy for being so rare, whose stride upfield had been ruined by a heavy touch that surrendered possession to Mascherano. The Barcelona midfielder shifted the ball on to Messi who gathered, pirouetted and dizzied Kevin De Bruyne and Fellaini before feeding Di María.

The Real Madrid winger’s pass might have been innocuous had it not deflected off Jan Vertonghen, wrong-footing Belgium’s defence in the process, but Higuaín’s sweeping first-time shot from the edge of the area across Courtois and into the corner was still magnificently executed. The Napoli striker had laboured through this tournament up to that point, his confidence apparently shattered in front of goal, but instinct had taken over with that finish.

The early reward relaxed Argentina and left Belgium in an unfamiliar game of catch-up. The Europeans were heavily backed by the locals in the arena yet their forays forward had been rather more sporadic. Vertonghen burst down the flank at times, Kevin Mirallas guiding a near-post header wide just before the interval from the full-back’s delivery, yet Marc Wilmots’s team had failed to isolate the more vulnerable players in Argentina’s back-line.

Kompany had felt compelled to look each of his team-mates in the eye before kick-off, presumably seeking out any flicker of self-doubt, and perhaps they were struggling to cope with the significance of the occasion. The captain’s frustration merely mounted as the game progressed, the centre-half nutmegged by Higuain after the interval only for the striker to clip the bar with his shot as Courtois feared the worst.

Belgium’s potential remained their biggest threat but, with Divock Origi peripheral – and eventually replaced by Romelu Lukaku – and De Bruyne over-worked in central midfield, they desperately needed Eden Hazard to explode. Of all Wilmot’s forward players, his No10 from Chelsea alone has arguably struggled to live up to his reputation and his inability to influence this game left him exasperated.

A poor challenge on Biglia earned a booking, what threat the Belgians mustered down that wing still coming from Vertonghen. The Tottenham Hotspur defender’s cross was thumped over the bar by Fellaini, leaping above José María Basanta.

That chance at least provided some late momentum as they pursued parity, though, when Fellaini volleyed over the bar at the end, here was confirmation that this was a game too far. The Red Devils will be stronger for this experience at Euro 2016. Argentina can aspire to make an impact in the final week in Brazil.

 Source:The Guardian

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