Brasilia: One by one the stars of this World Cup have been burnt out — Cristiano Ronaldo, Alexis Sanchez, James Rodriguez and, of course, Neymar — but the greatest of them all shines more brightly than ever.
Once again Lionel Messi’s sparkling majesty drove Argentina towards the crown as they overcame a disappointing Belgium to reach the semi-final.
It will be Argentina’s first semi-final since 1990 and retains the incredible prospect of the two South American superpowers meeting in next Sunday’s final as Brazil face Germany in the other semi-final.
[For the record, this is the first time that both Brazil and Argentina are in the semi-final line-up of a World Cup.]
For Belgium here ended a curious campaign. So much is made of Argentina being a team dominated by an individual — which is partly acceptable when he is the best player in the world — but the Belgians are a team of individuals. Good players whose fitful contribution has got them this far but not a team. There will be regrets.
Memories were stirred of past meetings and previous exploits – of Diego Maradona taking Belgium apart in that 1986 World Cup semi-final four years after he had been frustrated by the same opponents – as the atmosphere began to climb to heights that would rival this impressive, vertiginous arena.
There was goading also. Goading of the Brazilians within the stadium by the vast swathes of Argentinian supporters who chanted “Brazil how does it feel to be bossed around in your own back yard?” It only served to stoke the locals up even more in their support of Belgium who, however, were quickly carved open by a scampering run from Messi and a precise pass to Ezequiel Lavezzi. Only Vincent Kompany’s interception prevented Gonzalo Higuain from tapping home.
For a change the Albiceleste were in the minority. Not that it mattered. They soon silenced the Brazilians and inevitably Messi was heavily involved as he stole possession, brilliantly pirouetted away from Kevin de Bruyne and slipped a pass to Angel di Maria. His attempt to find the overlapping Pablo Zabeleta was deflected off Jan Vertonghen and the ball ran to Higuain who instinctively swiped a first-time shot across Thibaut Courtois and into the net. It was all the more stunning given how out-of-sorts Higuain has been during this World Cup.
Belgium had taken the team huddle to a new level prior to kick-off with all 23 players in a tight circle by the touchline and they would need that togetherness now. It will have stung Kompany that the goal had originated from him overrunning the ball in midfield and he needed to galvanise his team with Messi able to almost take them on at will aided by Di Maria.
A duel between Messi and Kompany began to develop with the defender standing firm and then recovering to block Di Maria’s shot – after a wonderful precise arcing ball from Messi – as he threatened to break clear.
Belgium needed to get Eden Hazard more involved and he began to drift more centrally in search of possession. Hazard instigated one move which resulted in goalkeeper Sergio Romero almost parrying De Bruyne’s shot straight to Divock Origi who was, nevertheless, struggling to make an impact.
As potent as Argentina were going forward they were in danger of being overrun in midfield with Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia — perhaps included at the expense of the disappointing Fernando Gago because of his seven years playing in Belgium for Anderlecht — outnumbered at times.
There was a blow to Argentina. Di Maria, so much more effective than he had been previously, had to substituted after suffering a thigh injury with the fear that it would blunt their attacking edge. But they still had Messi. His passing was peerless and precise and then his control in taking down a ball fired into his chest on the area’s edge, the way he held off three challenges — three fouls — before tumbling to the turf was quite extraordinary.
The free kick was given, in the middle of the D, and only one man would take it with Messi whipping the ball narrowly over the bar as Courtois stood rooted. Belgium needed a response. Needed to put down a marker, a foothold, and Kevin Mirallas almost provided it as he stooped to meet Vertonghen’s cross to guide a header.
For Argentina Lavezzi broke with the ball deflecting to Higuain who was allowed to retrieve it from the corner flag, cut inside the area – only for his shot to be deflected with Courtois sprawling.
Soon after and Messi outwitted De Bruyne with an outrageous piece of skill and Lavezzi’s cross-shot fired across the area before Hazard was cautioned for tripping Enzo Perez and Courtois clawed away Messi’s inswinging free kick.
Belgium were holding on and the indebted to a slice of good fortune as Higuain strode forward, on the counter-attack, slipped the ball through Kompany’s legs and sent in a fierce shot from outside the area that clipped the crossbar.
Surely Belgium coach Marc Wilmots had to act? His substitutions have saved him throughout this tournament and he made two more to try and arrest the momentum.
Inevitably the ineffective Origi gave way, replaced by Romelu Lukaku. Belgium needed more of a presence if they were going to work their way back into this tie.
Otherwise they were inevitably being engulfed by Messi’s mastery and Higuain’s surging confidence. Kevin Mirallas was also withdrawn – kicking a water bottle in frustration but he had been ineffective.
Fellaini’s whose own contribution had been questionable, as he appeared to be struggling in this company, then reached Vertonghen’s cross but could only steer his header wastefully over. At least, for once, he made his presence felt.
Still it led to Belgium pushing on with De Bruyne released down the right to cross low. The back-trackin Ezequiel Garay reached the ball first but only steered it goalwards. Fortunately for him Romero scooped it up at his near post. Not that Romero was convincing. He flapped at one cross from the left and then did so at another from the right as, finally, belatedly, Belgium began to apply some consistent pressure.
Off trundled Hazard who had had a poor match – his greatest contribution was to be cautioned for a hack – and had allowed such an occasion to pass him by. It was not the stuff that great players allow to happen to them. There had been no battle of the numbers 10s, not even a salvo fired. Hazard had been eclipsed.
By now Fellaini was a striker, joined by central defender Daniel Van Buyten, and the ball was simply being pumped forward. It was crude and it did not work. Then, in injury-time, Messi ran clear on goal. Surely he would end it? But Courtois stood and blocked his prodded shot to show there was some fallibility.
Argentina: Sergio Romero; Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis, Ezequiel Garay, Jose Basanta; Lucas Biglia, Javier Mascherano; Ezequiel Lavezzi (Rodrigo Palacio 71), Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria (Enzo Perez 33); Gonzalo Higuain (Fernando Gago 81)
Belgium: Thibaut Courtois; Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Daniel van Buyten, Jan Vertonghen; Kevin Mirallas (Dries Mertens 60), Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini; Eden Hazard (Nacer Chadli 75), Kevin de Bruyne; Divock Origi (Romelu Lukaku 59)
Man of the Match: Gonzalo Higuain
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)