A solitary goal was enough to put Argentina into the final 4 of the World Cup in sweltering conditions in Brasilia. It will be the South American giants’ first semi-final appearance at a World Cup since the 1990 World Cup.
With the match being billed as Messi’s Argentina against Hazard’s Belgium, a clash between the flair of the Argentine attack, against the solidity and physicality of the Belgian defence, it turned out to be a dour game overall.
Both sides made changes ahead of the game, with Lille forward Divock Origi, close to signing for Liverpool, starting in place of Romelu Lukaku. Dries Mertens made way for Everton attacker Kevin Mirallas. Elsewhere, Jose Maria Basanta replaced Marcos Rojo. Boca Juniors midfielder Fernando Gago was replaced by Lazio midfielder Lucas Biglia, while Manchester City’s Martin Demichelis came in for Federico Fernandez.
The match started at a moderate pace, with both teams happy to judge the conditions. However, Argentina struck with just 8 minutes on the clock. Vincent Kompany threw away possession, with Lionel Messi beating two Belgians before playing the ball into Angel di Maria, whose pass deflected into the path of the onrushing Gonzalo Higuain. The ball flew in perfectly at his feet, and he volleyed it straight past Courtois.
It was a fantastic finish and the blue section of the stadium erupted in joy. Lionel Messi, on his 91st cap (equal with Maradona), wasn’t done yet and produced a dazzling performance on the afternoon. He marauded his way past the big Belgian defenders before being bought down at the edge of the area. His resultant free kick went narrowly wide, as Belgium held on.
Belgium had little to offer going ahead, and struggled to make inroads into Argentina’s tightly knit defensive unit. Hazard looked lacklustre, with Mirallas, Origi and de Bruyne looking erratic at most times. They were forced to take shots from distance. First, a stingy shot from de Bruyne tested Sergio Romero before a Mirallas header off a Vertonghen cross went narrowly wide.
Messi continued to bewilder the static Belgian defence repeatedly, and the Red Devils had to retort to retreat from attack. In the second half, Higuain had a great chance to put Argentina 2-0 up. After Mirallas lost the ball, Higuain tricked Kompany but his shot could only strike the crossbar.
Marc Wilmots threw on Mertens and Lukaku and Belgium by now were playing long balls to make full use of their physical presence. Fellaini headed over from a Vertonghen ball. de Bruyne’s effort was almost put in for an own goal by Ezequiel Garay. The ineffective Hazard was bought off to be replaced by Tottenham’s Nacer Chadli as Belgium bolstered their height options.
However, it was too little too late, as Romero had little to do in the closing moments. In fact it was Messi, who had the chance to put the match beyond doubt, but Courtois smothered his effort when he was in a one-on-one situation. Belgium’s last chance came when a Lukaku cross was eventually turned out by Axel Witsel.
After all the hype about the talented Belgian squad, it was rather a damp outing for the Europeans, as Lionel Messi and Co. produced a sturdy performance to book a date for the semi-finals.
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