Photo by Steven Limentani/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
BRASILIA, Brazil — Argentina might be known for having arguably the world’s best player in the magical Leo Messi and a star-studded attack, but it was the defense that helped the Argentinians move one step closer to World Cup glory.
Gonzalo Higuain scored an eighth-minute goal and the Argentines’ back line held firm to knock off a tough Belgium side, 1-0, at Estadio Nacional on Saturday afternoon. The win placed Argentina in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time since 1990 and it will take on the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal between the Netherlands and Costa Rica.
Alejandro Sabella’s side got on the scoresheet early, as a deflected pass was measured perfectly by Higuain before the forward rifled the bouncing ball into the bottom corner of the far corner. The defense took over from there, standing tall against the Belgians’ talented attack to help improve Argentina to 5-0 in the tournament.
“It’s a great feeling for the group of players,” said Sabella. “They played an excellent game. It’s a great feeling of happiness for them and Argentinians everywhere who have waited 24 years. We are in the top four teams in the world. There’s immense happiness.”
Messi could have given the 68,551 fans in attendance a second goal in the dying moments and guaranteed Argentina’s advancement, but he was denied incredibly on a one-on-one opportunity by Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium had chances to find an equalizer over the course of the 90 minutes, but could not muster up that final ounce of quality in the attacking third against Argentina’s back four despite being adamantly pushed on by the Brazilian supporters in attendance.
The Argentines’ defense limited Belgium to mostly half chances, but Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini had respective headers on each side of halftime that they would have liked to put on frame. Mirallas snapped a header off the ground and wide in the 40th minute and Fellaini nodded his effort just after the hour-mark high.
Kevin De Bruyne also had a pair of opportunities in the first half to pull level, but he sliced a shot from distance well wide five minutes after Higuain struck and could only watch in frustration as Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero parried away a shot in the 26th minute.
“My team was well-balanced,” said Sabella. “The lines were tight, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. … But we executed a very good gameplan.”
Higuain could have put the game away 10 minutes into the second half. He dribbled forward on a quick counterattack, megged a defender and hit a powerful shot on a one-on-opportunity that nicked off the crossbar and went out of play.
The veteran striker wasn’t as forgiving on his half-chance in the eight minute. A deflected pass from the right made his way to him and he unleashed a right-footed shot that nestled into the bottom corner and left Courtois frozen.
“I was calm, I was working hard and I felt plenty of confidence thanks to the coaching staff and my teammates and that’s what is most important,” said Higuain. “With luck, the goal came for me today. A forward lives off of goals and what’s nicer than scoring today? But we still have two games to go.”
The one piece of bad news for Argentina was that they lost Angel Di Maria to a muscle injury in his right leg midway through the first half. Di Maria was replaced by Enzo Perez and will undergo further tests on Sunday to determine the severity of the injury.
“He’s a key player in this group and through the whole qualifying process he was a starter and he helps us out tremendously,” said Higuain. “It’s sad with what happened today, but we’ll all get together and hope that he’ll be okay.”
Argentina next plays at Arena de Sao Paulo on Wednesday, facing the winner of the last semifinals match between the Netherlands and Costa Rica.