Argentina edge bland Belgium in World Cup quarter-finals
Argentina, 9/4 to win the World Cup, ensured their place in the semi-final with an early goal, as Gonzalo Higuain propelled his nation ahead with a superbly instinctive strike in the seventh minute.
It was the main highlight and only goal, in a game which promised more than it provided, with Belgium set up to stifle their South American counterparts. La Albiceleste, though still not on top form, were deserving of their win.
Going ahead so early meant Argentina, odds-on at 8/13 to qualify for the final, could be patient and threaten to pick the Red Devils off on the counter. A lack of real width in the Belgian side also played straight into La Albiceleste boss Alejandro Sabella’s hands, with Eden Hazard et al struggling to create chances in congested central areas.
Goal hero Higuain could have hit a hat-trick, but saw his 50th minute shot deflected just wide, and was unlucky to rattle the bar after galloping freely through a practically non-existent Belgian midfield.
Leading up to the Napoli striker’s goal, Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne had scuppered a promising attack between them, and conceded possession in the opposition half. It was a moment that perfectly encapsulated the duo’s disappointing performances, in a game that could have been there for the taking, had the Red Devils played with the same urgency they illustrated in the last 10 minutes.
In De Bruyne’s defence, he did create opportunities, even if his endeavours resulted in deflected shots or poor crosses. Hazard, meanwhile, failed to threaten once again, in the last of what has been a series of muted performances from Chelsea’s star man. His frustration was evident by the 52nd minute, following a lunge on Lucas Biglia that resulted in the first yellow card of the clash.
It was a reminder that the 23-year-old still has some way to go before he can be considered in the same class as Lionel Messi. As always, the brilliant Barcelona forward provided skilful moments worthy of a show-reel, and was central to most of La Albiceleste’s attacking threat.
Messi, 11/4 to be tournament top scorer, was also once again integral in the build-up to Argentina’s winner, dazzling Belgium and drawing them in. He then almost provided an assist for a second goal, with a defence-splitting pass to Angel di Maria.
However, despite several opportunities falling his way, which he uncharacteristically failed to finish off, the captain was unable to fire himself level with James Rodriguez, who still leads the World Cup scorers chart.
Di Maria was another bright spark in Argentina’s attack, until he was forced off with a thigh injury. Having already lost Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero, La Albiceleste will be hoping the Real Madrid man can recover in time for their exciting semi-final encounter with the Netherlands.
Ideas were finally injected into Belgium with a double substitution. Dries Mertens came on for an unhappy looking Kevin Mirallas, and Romelu Lukaku, who in hindsight should have started, replaced fellow young-gun Divock Origi to provide more presence up front.
The switches almost paid instant dividends, as Belgium finally came alive, with another Jan Vertonghen cross finding Marouane Fellaini, who headed over. The Red Devils looked threatening, though, and were unlucky in the dying moments not to steal another lucky late goal, as Mertens provided a delightful through-ball for Lukaku to latch onto. The youngster saw his attempt saved, with Axel Witsel’s follow-up flying agonisingly just over the bar.
Whilst there is no shame in Marc Wilmots’ side suffering a quarter-final exit to Argentina, the limp nature of the elimination was disappointing, with little spark shown from the so-called ‘Golden generation’ of Belgium. They will come again at Euro 2016, however.
La Albiceleste, 5/4 to defeat the Netherlands in 90 minutes, meanwhile, barely broke a sweat, and head comfortably into their first World Cup semi-final in 24 years, with their eyes firmly on a potential final with bitter rivals Brazil.