Having finally shown what they can really do, the quarterfinals turned out to be the end of the line for the Red Devils. All in all, there is much to be happy about for Belgian fans. Belgium showed in the group phase that they have what it takes to grind out a result. They don't give anything away at the back and have the players up front to decide a game with a flash of individual brilliance.
Strangely, though, having won Group H with maximum points they were still criticized, not least by the press and fans back at home for not being positive enough, not inventive enough, not adventurous enough. They managed to put that to bed in a round of 16 game against the USA in which they pinned their opponents back from the first minute and created chance upon chance. Indeed, had it not been for the heroics of Tim Howard in the American goal, it could have been the highest scoring game in the tournament.
Coach Marc Wilmots had warned straight after the game not to expect the same attacking approach in the quarterfinal. He said Belgium would adapt to Argentina and they would deal with Lionel Messi as a team rather than focus on him too much or sacrifice a player to handle him. Wilmots also said that while the Red Devils always respected their opponent, there would be no fear for Argentina, a team he rightly said lacked balance. There was some truth in this: Argentina had been unimpressive and even lucky in their first four games; Belgium had a real chance.
They started brightly and straight away tried to attack Argentina. However, Belgium were too eager to go forward and when Vincent Kompany lost the ball, a pass deflected off Jan Vertonghen's leg into the path of Gonzalo Higuain. Higuain felt no one was close enough to defend and fired Argentina ahead as early as the eighth minute.
As Argentina set up to defend their lead but do little else, Belgium seemed caught in two minds. Wilmots' promise not to sacrifice a player was undone by Marouane Fellaini tracking Messi around the pitch. And, a goal down, Belgium had to attack and were often seen with five or six men in front of the ball, stretching the field of play.
That combination left Axel Witsel exposed and often facing three or four opponents alone in front of Belgium's defence. Witsel may be one of the world's best in his position, but he is not super-human. His lone fight not only left room for Argentina, but effectively took Belgium's motor out of the equation. The side had been better off with a second holding midfielder to allow Witsel time and space to become the vital link between defence and attack. Steven Defour might have been a better option to start and that would also have left Fellaini on the bench to come on as an impact substitution.
After the game, Wilmots was frustrated by Argentina's approach to the game, saying: "We weren't beaten on merit, against a team who didn't want to play, while we did. Who were the favourites here?" But Belgium didn't do enough to threaten Argentina either. They did have some attempts on goal but apart from a headed effort from Kevin Mirallas just before the break, never really worried their opponents.
Belgium came out from half-time unchanged, not just in personnel but attitude. Still they didn't take the game to their opponents; they seemed to lack belief and never came anywhere near the effective, sober football of the group stage, nor the dazzling interplay of the second round game. Belgium looked fearful and their football suffered: it was slow and predictable. There was no spark. Eden Hazard summed up the team's performance and was almost invisible until he was taken off after 75 minutes.
Only when Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens came on for Mirallas and the lacklustre Divock Origi did Belgium start to show some purpose. They pressed for the equaliser in the last 10 minutes and, in the end, Argentina looked relieved to hear the final whistle after Lukaku had a fantastic late chance to take the game into extra time. But, like all his teammates, he seemed to lack the confidence to shoot from a promising position, and squared the ball instead. Witsel followed up with a shot over the bar and that was it.
There was a distinct feeling in Belgium that this game could have gone either way. In the end, a defensive mistake and a lack of experience cost Belgium the game. Vincent Kompany summed it up: "Collectively, we were better. But they made the difference with their individual class. We have done our best and that is the most important thing. It's been a beautiful adventure and we must not forget all the good things from the past weeks. We have one of the youngest teams in this World Cup and there will be other tournaments. Maybe we'll have a better chance in Russia in four years' time."
It will be a long way home for Belgium but they have a lot to be proud of, having placed themselves alongside the best eight teams in the world. Some would say the Red Devils didn't deliver on the hype created around them -- and it is true that they blew hot and cold -- but the target was to get out of the group stage. Reaching the quarterfinals, with a real feeling that they could have gone even further, allows them to return disappointed but not dejected. And with a bright future lying ahead.