Argentina proved they are more than just Lionel Messi in their 1-0 quarterfinal win over Belgium today, with a number of players impressing on the day. Belgium once again looked lost in its own system, with so many talented individuals playing like only a fraction of their normal selves.
Gonzalo Higuain may often get overlooked in the grander scheme of things, but he may be almost as crucial to Argentina’s World Cup campaign as Messi himself. Higuain played his best game of the tournament today, opening up with a brilliantly taken volley past Thibaut Courtois to give Argentina the lead. From there, his play only got better. He was a menace on the ball, dropping deeper than normal to pick up the ball when his team earned possession. His hold-up play was among the best seen in Brazil, as his ability to keep the ball under fierce pressure allowed his midfielders time to get forward. Holding off Vincent Kompany is always a big ask for a forward, but Higuain had little trouble today. His nutmeg of Kompany on a solo run that ended with a well-struck shot hitting the crossbar typified the performance.
When Angel di Maria went down with a thigh injury, Argentina’s approach understandably became more patient. But even without di Maria’s pacey runs, Messi and company still found success out wide. Ezequiel Lavezzi put in an impressive shift defensively, but he also made a number of runs out wide that nearly resulted in goals. With di Maria likely out of the semifinal, Lavezzi will be called upon to deliver another performance like his one today. And in midfield and defense, Alejandro Sabella’s changes in the lineup looked genius. Lucas Biglia had a solid performance in the middle of the park, certainly appearing up to the task. And in defense, Martin Demichelis hardly put a foot wrong. Especially late on when Belgium started sending in long-balls, Demichelis’s physicality proved vital for Argentina.
While Belgium might be satisfied with their quarterfinal appearance in their first World Cup since 2002, they never lived up to their potential. Much like they had all tournament, they lacked creativity in the final third today. Star player Eden Hazard was rightly substituted late on, because he had not looked even a shadow of himself. As one of the Premier League’s best players, Hazard could have stolen the show in Brazil, but instead, he barely made an impact. He’s got a long shelf life in international soccer, but his poor performances here won’t enhance his reputation. With Cesc Fabregas coming in at Chelsea, Hazard might be at risk of getting dropped if his play doesn’t pick up in pre-season.
Marc Wilmots’s Belgian side had more talent on the field today than Argentina did among all 11 players. But Belgium did not have a single player step up. They were wasteful all day on set pieces, and with Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini all capable of changing a match with their heads, the consistently poor delivery did themselves no favors. In two years time, after this young side has had more time on the training ground together, they should be a favorite at the European Championships. But today, they were not cut out for the biggest stage.
Messi had a good game in possession, once again looking a magician with the ball at his feet, but he will be disappointed not to have beaten his nemesis Courtois at the end of the game. One has to feel Messi won’t miss many more chances like that in Brazil. But overall, he will be delighted with the performance of his teammates. Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Mascherano are all more than capable of stepping up beside Messi to lead this team to the title. And they showed it today.