Saturday 24 March 2018

Argentina advance without requiring the Messi show

Lionel Messi celebrates after Argentina defeated Belgium to advance to the World Cup semi-final
Lionel Messi celebrates after Argentina defeated Belgium to advance to the World Cup semi-final

Daniel McDonnell in Brasilia

This was not the Lionel Messi show and Argentina can take comfort from that fact after booking their semi-final place in more comfortable fashion than the scoreline suggests.

The Barcelona wizard did produce a few magic touches in this tepid Brasilia encounter but victory was secured courtesy of Gonzalo Higuain's return to form and a more sturdy defensive showing from Alejandro Sabella's side.

Messi could even afford a pass up a one-on-one at the death with Thibaut Courtois equal to the task. He can save the shooting boots for Wednesday in Sao Paulo.

Belgium were disappointing. The ineffective Eden Hazard was deservedly substituted and a gameplan revolving around hopeful punts to Marouane Fellaini is short of the subtlety required to cross this hurdle.

The Manchester United misfit created some difficulty in a conclusion where a side advertised as a blueprint for the future were reduced to route one tactics but the pinballing around the penalty area couldn't yield an equaliser.

This Brasilia showdown was expected to be a story of Argentine dominance with Belgium soaking pressure and hurting on the counter-attack. The narrative was slightly altered by the South Americans' decisive eighth minute strike.

Marc Wilmots' boys had started reasonably positively and their concession was a by-product of that as centre-half Vincent Kompany charged forward only to lose possession. Argentina pounced, and Angel Di Maria's deflected pass found its way to Higuain who swivelled and produced an instinctive first time right footer from outside the area that left the flat-footed Courtois as a spectator as it arrowed into the bottom corner.

It was a goal that released the pressure from La Selección shoulders and, crucially, it reduced their need to be too adventurous. This contrasted from the challenge presented by a Swiss wall that ended up leaving gaps to exploit at the other end.

Sabllla had selected Lazio midfielder Lucas Biglia next to Javier Mascherano to give the midfield a solid base and they seldom ventured from their station. Indeed, Mascherano visibly urged his back four to calm down and slow the tempo in a slightly frenetic period in the early exchanges. Argentina didn't commit bodies forward unnecessarily and, as a consequence, that left their European opposition with less space to invade on the break.

Indeed, it was Argentina who almost struck by countering at speed when a delectable Messi pass found the rampaging Di Maria before the Real Madrid midfielder's shot was blocked by Kompany. That moment came at a cost as Di Maria sustained a muscle injury that forced his early departure.

Belgium threatened briefly before the interval with a Jan Vertonghen cross nodded narrowly wide by Kevin Mirallas, yet they were unable to really get into a rhythm and rode their luck when Messi was felled by Marouane Fellaini outside the box and then curled the resultant free narrowly over the bar.

The onus was on Belgium to make the second half interesting and they failed in that mission. Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens were sent in for Divock Origi and Miralles, but Fellaini remained at the centre of their strategy. Higuain could have put the game to bed when he nutmegged Kompany; his shot grazed the top of the crossbar on its way into the stands.

Sabella worked his bench with a view to shutting up shop as Higuain made way for Fernando Gago with ten minutes to go. Belgium huffed and puffed without creating anything like the opportunity that Messi wasted in injury time.

Fellaini threatened with one header, but the services of keeper Sergio Romero weren't required to keep it out. The same applied to their last chance of staying alive in the seconds after Messi's miss when Lukaku finally imposed and his dragback was cleared into the path of Axel Witsel. In keeping with his side's overall display, the execution lacked quality and Belgium were finished. Argentina's story is only developing.


Online Editors

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