Higuain effort enough for Argentina
BRASILIA, Brazil -- Three thoughts on Argentina's 1-0 win over Belgium in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
1. Lone star in the galaxy
The tournament's star system is being whittled down. Ten days ago, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo limped sorrowfully from the Estadio Nacional; Neymar's injury and the tearful exit of rising star James Rodriguez from Friday's match between Brazil and Colombia in Fortaleza left the road open for Lionel Messi to assume the centre stage he feels most comfortable in. The conceit that the Argentine lacks ego is wholly inapplicable; he is just as ambitious as Ronaldo is accused of being.
Messi might have stolen the day with a late chance: through on goal in added time, he shot straight at Thibaut Courtois, but in Brasilia his teammates showed for the first time that they can provide able support. In reaching their first semifinal since 1990, Argentina were strong in all departments; had they finished better they might even have been out of sight of a rather lumpen Belgium. Instead they had to rely on Gonzalo Higuain's sole early effort to secure progress.
Messi, meanwhile, played amid boos and cheers. Brazilians and the small pocket of Belgians feared him, though he ran flushed with the goodwill of Argentina. His opening burst showed why. A dribble past two defenders and a pass to Angel Di Maria set up Argentina's first attack.
That one broke down, but his next gambol wreaked havoc. Messi took men with him; Di Maria's pass did not work the first time, but into space stepped Higuain. The confidence of the finish did not reflect a player who has looked short of his best in Brazil, as Thibaut Courtois was caught cold by the strike's decisiveness. Argentinian fans -- with flags attached to wrists -- created a blue sea of celebration. Higuain thereafter played with far greater confidence, though should have scored when nutmegging Vincent Kompany and then thrashing wildly against the bar.
The loss of Di Maria to a thigh injury sustained while shooting looked a considerable blow. Only Real Madrid's midfielder had previously looked on the same wavelength as Messi. His replacement, Enzo Perez, was not nearly capable of supporting with runs deep into enemy territory. Instead, Messi took the cudgels himself with a winding run that Marouane Fellaini stopped with typical clumsiness. The resultant free kick had Courtois beaten, but missed its intended target.
Ezequiel Lavezzi came to the party, too, his winding runs a constant feature until his withdrawal in the second half. Belgium had resorted to some strong stuff to stop him but they could not avert Argentina.
2. For Belgian friends
Among the Belgian contingent who have followed their men around Brazil, it was felt that the quarterfinal was a target reached with credit. Euro 2016, in neighbouring France, is seen as a more reachable target. By then, the Belgians might have matured, with this South American expedition providing a valuable learning experience.
Of all the camps at the finals, the Belgians' has been among the most harmonious. Their training sessions have all been open, and while coach Marc Wilmots can be cantankerous, he had cut a relaxed figure since arriving in Brasilia.
A lack of creative tension may lie at the heart of Belgium's failure to go further, when the talent is clearly there. Only against Team USA have they really dominated an occasion -- and even then they had to hang on for dear life in those last 10 minutes of extra time.
They were caught cold by Higuain's strike, and only recovered their composure towards the end of the first half. That said, Argentina seemed happy to soak up pressure and play on the break; such situations have usually brought out the best from Messi in this tournament. It took until the 40th minute for Kevin Mirallas, with a low header, to have their first proper shot on goal. Belgium usually looked far less a team, more a smattering of individuals.
Eden Hazard had a poor match, and kept getting bogged down in traffic; he looked way off meeting Jose Mourinho's February expectation that he could reach Messi levels. He might even have been dismissed for a lunging tackle on Lucas Biglia and was subbed off as his team chased an equaliser, with Nacer Chadli of Spurs coming the closest.
Kevin De Bruyne's undoubted gifts did not flower in the same fashion they had in Salvador, while the concept of Fellaini as Messi man-marker produced some moments of high farce. (Why do managers think the Manchester United misfit can play at the base of midfield when all known evidence suggests he is incapable?) When he did get forward, he was a bulwarking threat, though he should have done better with a headed chance.
Young striker Divock Origi -- so impressive in previous games -- looked raw, too, before being replaced by Romelu Lukaku. Even the prospect of facing the Dutch in a Low Countries semifinal derby in Sao Paulo could not raise Belgium's efforts. Their World Cup has been decent, though they need more cutting edge and an increased verve if those Euro ambitions are to be met.
3. Blue moon rising
Blue and white shirts and flags filled the Ballardian landscape of Brazil's modern capital. The Argentine ultras were in no mood for making themselves welcome.
For those who live within the city, only one outcome was desirable; the Belgian team were cheered to the rafters on making their entrance to the warm-up, and all their attacks were roared on by the locals. With Neymar lost and a greater reliance on hapless Fred, perhaps it was appropriate that the Argentine fans' theme song is to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising." The fear is that the road to Argentina victory is opening up, while Germany might slam shut the door on the hosts in a few days' time.
The locals did not get their wish, and though Di Maria's probable loss is a bad blow, it came nowhere near to the Neymar nightmare. Banks of people in yellow looked sullen next to those bouncing in blue. Argentina looking strong may yet double the Neymar pain.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.