by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 5th 2014)
Argentina reached the semi-final of Brasilʼs World Cup with an efficient 1-0 victory over Marc Wilmotsʼ young Belgium side making their first appearance in the World Cup Finals since 2002 courtesy of Gonzalo Higuaínʼs excellent 8th minute strike. The build up was fortunate – the finish masterful. After twisting and turning Lionel Messi fed Real Madridʼs Ángel di María on the right.
Di María tried to put Manchester Cityʼs Pablo Zabaleta through on the overlap and was fortunate that a massive deflection off Jan Vertonghen took it into the path of Higuaín. The Napoli striker deserves all the credit for the goal which turned out to be the historic winner. Higuaín had been distinctly underwhelming in the tournament previously.
This was his first goal – an instinctive shot to goal-keeper Thibaut Courtoisʼ right. The Belgian keeper who had never tasted defeat for his country until this afternoon could do nothing about it. It proved enough to set up a semi-final clash against either the Netherlands or surprise package Costa Rica who meet tonight. Higuaínʼs winner was the first time that Argentina had reached the semi-final in normal time since Diego Maradonaʼs prime.
It took Wilmotsʼ side over 40 minutes to fashion their best opportunity. Vertonghen was released on the left by Chelseaʼs Eden Hazard. His cross deserved a better header than Evertonʼs Kevin Mirallas provided. Sergio Romero was not required to make a save. Fifteen minutes earlier VfL Wolfsburgʼs Kevin de Bruyne at least forced Monacoʼs reserve goal-keeper Sergio Romero to make a save, but it was a long range effort that didnʼt seriously test the keeper. The rebound eluded Lille teenager Divock Origi – Romelu Lukaku remained on the bench despite finding form against the USA.
Di María was unable to continue after just over half an hour. He may be out of the tournament. Messi had yet to shine. After 38 minutes Messi was felled by Manchester United misfit Marouane Fellainiʼs persistent fouling. He picked himself up to take the free-kick, but Courtois, whose future will be resolved after the World Cup was not required to make a save.
Messi had a chance to put Belgium away in added time when put through by substitute Fernando Gago. With just Courtois to beat Messi tried to caress it past the La Liga winner with the outside of his foot, but Courtois saved well to keep Belgium in contention – just.
Less than ten minutes into the second half the largely ineffective Hazard was fortunate that he only received a yellow card for a high tackle on Lazioʼs Lucas Biglia.
Two minutes later Enzo Pérez broke on the right wing before passing to Higuaín who blazed a trail through the Belgian defence, nutmegging Kompany before unleashing a powerful shot that not even Courtois could keep out. Fortunately for him it hit the crossbar and bounced over. Belgium had little choice, but to attack as time began to ebb. Fellaini headed Vertonghenʼs excellent cross over with an hour gone.
Shortly afterwards Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli initially gave a corner to Belgium, but after consulting his assistant changed his mind and gave a free-kick against Fellaini for fouling Ezequiel Garay. Despite this, Rizzoliʼs performance was a lesson for other referees as he kept control without showing undue leniency – apart from Hazardʼs offence – or it ever threatening to become a card-fest.
Belgium had to press harder for an equaliser, but their attacks lacked quality. It wasnʼt until added time that they seriously threatened and even then Romero was not called into action. Their last attempt was also their best, but it came after Messi should have ended the small chance that they had.
In the centre of Argentinaʼs half Zenit Saint Petersburgʼs Axel Witsel found Mertens to his left. Mertens played it forward to Lukaku. The Chelsea striker squared it, but Garay snubbed out the danger and it eventually broke to Witsel who shot over from 23 yards. It was their last chance. Argentina were through to face either the Netherlands or surprise package Costa Rica.
It was the first time in almost a quarter of a century that Argentina had reached the semi-final of the World Cup in normal time.