Argentina's first World Cup semifinal since the days of Diego Maradona came at the end of their fifth consecutive single-goal victory -- evidence for the view that Alejandro Sabella's team has not thrilled us as we hoped going into the competition.
Like the previous day's France versus Germany match, the clash with Belgium in Brasilia was decided by an early goal, after which the losing side lacked the inspiration to claw their way back into consideration. In comparison with Germany, however, Argentina were not as impressive. The early loss of Angel Di Maria robbed them of the electric pace on the counterattack that would have been so useful in the second half.
And the absence of Fernando Gago, left out for Lucas Biglia, perhaps added more midfield marking but deprived the team of the one function Gago carries out so well -- serving as a supply line for Lionel Messi. Considering the space that was available down the flanks and either side of Belgian holding midfielder Axel Witsel, Argentina were not able to bring Messi into action as much as they have in previous games.
For Sabella, however, there are plenty of positives that can be taken from the win -- in addition to the obvious fact of victory and qualification for the semifinals. Centre-forward Gonzalo Higuain at last made a contribution, swiveling to take advantage of that early chance. Sabella will also be delighted with the way his much-criticised defence stood up to the late Belgian pressure. Martin Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay in the heart of the defence stood up well to the aerial challenge, and Jose Basanta did a sound job as left-back, coming in for the suspended Marcos Rojo.
Basanta is more of a centre-back than a full-back, which proved useful in a match in which Argentina were able to defend deep after opening the scoring inside the first 10 minutes. This, of course, meant that the lack of pace in the defensive unit was not exposed. The speed of Divock Origi, Belgium's central striker, was easily neutralised.
Wednesday's semifinal may well be a different story, especially if, as expected, Netherlands get past Costa Rica. It seems now that Sabella has settled on a 4-4-2 formation. Argentina began their campaign with a nervous 3-5-2 against Bosnia, abandoned at half-time after a dreadful 45 minutes and replaced by the very open 4-3-3 they had played during qualification. Sabella has always worried about the vulnerability of his defence when his team play this way -- the side can easily become stretched out, and there is usually space available for the opponents between the full-backs and the centre-backs.
The 4-4-2 system would seem to leave the team more compact, which could be important against the dangerous Dutch wingers. So if Di Maria is not available, then Enzo Perez may well continue to deputise on the right of midfield. And Argentina have now gained a few more days to get Sergio Aguero fit to make a contribution, almost certainly off the bench. Good teams are usually comprised of little partnerships. Messi and Higuain appear to have little on-field understanding. If fit, Aguero as a second-half game-changer could be an option on Wednesday -- as Argentina go in search of their first World Cup final since Messi was 3 years old.