Belgium and Argentina faced off in what promised to be a monumental quarter-final in the Brazilian capital. The Red Devils were on the cusp of reaching only their second ever World Cup semi-final, but to do that they'd have to get past Lionel Messi & Co. Argentina were yet to produce their best form in the tournament, but knew they had an excellent opportunity to reach the semi-finals and even the final for the first time in over 20 years.
However, they had to overcome a couple of personnel problems even before kick-off. Sergio Aguero was deemed unfit to start once again and Marcos Rojo was suspended, resulting in a rare appearance for Jose Maria Basanta, the 30-year-old defender who plies his trade with Monterrey in Mexico. Two further amendments to the spine of the team, Lucas Biglia and Martin Demichelis replacing Fernando Gago and Federico Fernandez, meant this was a much-changed side for the Argentines.
Marc Wilmots made just one change from the win over USA, Everton's Kevin Mirallas replacing Napoli's Dries Mertens on the right wing.
Argentina started the game well and as in the previous two quarter-finals, the goal was not long in coming. Vincent Kompany lost the ball in midfield after a surge from the back and, following some good close control from Messi and a deflected pass, Gonzalo Higuain opened his account for the tournament with a superb instinctive finish. 1-0 Argentina with just 8 minutes played.
Belgium got back into the game, pushing their full-backs forward and winning 2 corners, 1 from an excellent Jan Vertonghen cross.
Both teams were happy to let their centre-backs roam forward with the ball - though in Kompany's case, it led to Argentina's opening goal.
Wilmots' side began to threaten more regularly with Argentina reduced to counter-attacks, albeit menacing ones. The players' average positions after nearly half an hour of play suggested as much.
After Higuain's early goal, the match had actually been fairly even. Belgium were edging possession, Argentina chances.
Alejandro Sabella was forced into an early change shortly after the half-hour mark - and potentially a crucial one. Benfica's Enzo Perez won only his eighth Argentina cap as Angel di Maria went off with an injury, in what appeared to be a defensive substitution: Di Maria was playing as an interior in a 4-3-3, rather than as a winger in a 4-2-3-1, but nonetheless looked to get forward more than you might expect from Perez.
The substitute would naturally win more tackles, something Di Maria was failing to do, but he did also drive forward immediately after coming on, crossing for Messi to win a dangerous free-kick on the edge of the box.
The Red Devils were refusing to let the game get away from them, Mirallas planting a diving header wide. Belgium, and especially Vertonghen, were getting crosses into dangerous areas, even if few were finding the head of a team-mate.
At half-time the Brasilia crowd had seen just 2 shots on target: Higuain's goal and a long-distance effort from Kevin de Bruyne hit straight at the goalkeeper. It was evident that a moment of magic could settle the match, if Higuain's clever finish hadn't done so already.
Despite nominally being a defensive midfielder, Javier Mascherano had been alone in creating multiple goalscoring opportunities. He also completed the most passes of any player in the first half, misplacing only 1.
Another man playing against type was Eden Hazard, shaking off his reputation as despising defending by regularly winning the ball back for Belgium. His 5 interceptions almost matched the tally of Argentina's whole team.
Messi was causing typical havoc, after winning Man of the Match in all 4 of Argentina's games at the World Cup. Marouane Fellaini resorted to the dark arts in response, committing 4 fouls in the first half, including a four-in-one series of challenges on Messi that included a step on The Flea's nadgers. Yelp.
Leading 1-0, Argentina started the second half strongly. Ezequiel Lavezzi fired a dangerous cross across the box and Higuain hit the bar after a brilliant run, including a nutmeg on Belgium captain Kompany. It was an excellent charge and the Napoli striker was just inches away from making it 2-0, but having got himself one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois, he should have hit the target.
As he had against USA, Wilmots showed perhaps too much patience in sticking with Divock Origi before making the necessary change. Romelu Lukaku had warmed up throughout the first half in this match but he didn't replace the ineffectual Origi until the hour mark. Mertens took over from Mirallas in another like-for-like swap.
Belgium had an excellent chance immediately afterwards, Fellaini heading powerfully over the bar from yet another excellent Vertonghen delivery. For a centre-half often vocal about his reluctance to play at left-back, the Tottenham man was putting in a number of superb crosses.
The substitutions seemed to breathe new life into Belgium. Axel Witsel was controlling the midfield, making the most passes and ball recoveries in the match, while Fellaini was now being deployed as a target-man, as he was against Algeria, as part of a predictable but previously effective Plan B.
Belgium's eagerness to pump the ball into the opposition area was illustrated by Argentina making twice as many clearances.
Sabella looked to shut out the game in the last 10 minutes, bringing on midfielder Fernando Gago to replace Higuain (though the presence of Messi and earlier introduction of Rodrigo Palacio meant la Albiceleste weren't completely devoid of attacking intent).
Belgium continued to throw the ball forward, unsurprisingly going very direct with 6ft 4in Fellaini and 6ft 6in Daniel van Buyten joining Lukaku upfront while the more physical Chadli replaced Hazard, but despite a couple of late skirmishes, they couldn't find the equaliser.
In fact, it was Argentina who come closest to scoring as Messi was put through on goal when Belgium were caught short at the back, but Courtois closed him down to produce a top save.
The full-time whistle came and Argentina had won 1-0 courtesy of Higuain's strike. For the third quarter-final in a row, an early goal had made the difference, Germany winning with the only goal after 12 minutes, and Brazil prevailing 2-1 after taking the lead inside the opening 10.
Sabella's men ran out relatively comfortable winners, but they had been made to work in the second half: Belgium's emergence after the break was evident in Argentina's shrinking influence on the game.
Across the 90 minutes, Belgium had 54% possession - yet they made twice as many tackles as their opponents.
Between them, the two sides managed only 3 shots on target, the fewest in a World Cup knockout match since the final in 1990, when several of these players weren't born. The Belgians' only tester for Sergio Romero came from outside the area.
As harsh as it sounds, Belgium deserved to bow out. Wilmots' men aren't the only group of individuals that hasn't come together at this tournament, but they've lacked both the tactical ingenuity and defensive stability to get themselves out of trouble.
Yet again, Argentina didn't blow away the opposition, but they did put in a disciplined performance and came closest to scoring the second goal (Higuain hitting the crossbar and Courtois saving well from Messi late on). There was more evidence of them clicking as a team. However, you feel they still need to go up another gear if they're to win this World Cup on their enemy's soil.
Facts and figures
- Gonzalo Higuain's strike ended a run of 528 minutes without a goal for Argentina, having last scored in August 2013 for them.
- The goal means Higuain has matched Lionel Messi’s total of 5 World Cup goals for Argentina having played just 9 games compared to Messi’s 13.
- Argentina have netted in 8 of their last 9 World Cup knockout matches.
- Belgium have kept 1 clean sheet in their last 7 games against South American sides at the World Cup.
- Each of Argentina’s 5 wins at this tournament have come by a single goal margin.
- Argentina have kept just 2 clean sheets in their last 11 World Cup knockout matches, but they have come in their last 2 games.
- This is the first time in World Cup history that Brazil and Argentina have both appeared in the semi-finals.
- Belgium only shipped 3 goals in total in 5 games in the 2014 World Cup.
- Argentina have won 4 of their 5 encounters with Belgium, scoring 11 goals and conceding 4.
- This is the first time since 1986 that Argentina have won a quarter-final outright in 90 minutes, when they beat England 2-1. They went through on penalties against Yugoslavia in 1990, and were eliminated three times - in 1998, 1-2 vs Netherlands, 2006, on penalties vs Germany and 2010, 0-4 v Germany.
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