After just 8 minutes and change in the World Cup quarterfinal between Argentina and Belgium on Sunday in Brasilia, a broken play led to a goal for Argentina and a 1-0 margin that held up to send the South Americans to the semifinals against the winner of the match between the Netherlands and Costa Rica later on Saturday.
Almost right away, Angel di María - the Albiceleste midfielder who scored the overtime goal that sunk Switzerland in the Round of 16 - had the ball knocked away from him, but it bounced right to Gonzalo Higuaín’s foot, and the Napoli striker knew just what to do with it: Drill it into the corner of the net for his first goal of the Cup.
It was a palpable relief for a team that has been criticized for relying too much on Lionel Messi and his “impossible” skills, as the FiveThirtyEight blog recently declared his play.
The Belgian side was coming off its best performance of the Cup—a convincing 2-1 win over the United States in a spirited Round of 16 game in which goalie Tim Howard forced the Red Devils to pull out every weapon in their arsenal.
But they didn’t find it quite as easy to dominate Argentina in the middle of the field as they did the U.S.
Not that they didn’t create chances: A dangerous cross by Kevin De Bruyne in the 17th minute was cleared out of bounds by Argentina, and a header in the box by Kevin Mirallas that just missed to the left of the goal.
While the Belgians were unable to even the score in the first half, they also prevented the Argentineans from adding to their lead - thanks principally to a fabulous defensive effort by captain Vincent Kompany, who single-handedly stifled various prime scoring opportunities.
One began with a long, pinpoint pass from Messi to di María, but Kompany, alone in the backfield with the Real Madrid star, was able to get a thigh on his shot on goal.
The play also led to di María getting injured and being pulled in the 32nd minute.
The Belgians made a concerted effort not to let Messi beat them, shoving, poking, kicking and elbowing him whenever they got the chance.
Two, three defenders descended on him a number of times during the game, leading to a couple of free kicks, but nothing that the Argentineans could cash in on.
Argentina opened the second half peppering the Belgian goal with shots. On a breakaway in the 55th minute, Higuaín beat Kompany then drilled a shot over the head of the Belgian keeper, Thibaut Courtois, that glanced off the crossbar.
The tide turned about five minutes later, when Marc Wilmots sent in Romelo Lukaku, who scored a goal against the U.S., and midfielder Dries Mertens.
The Red Devils’ attack got crisper and the Argentinean defense more ragged. On a cross in the 65th minute, defender Ezequiel Garay nearly scored an own goal, but goalie Sergio Romero was able to corral it.
The time of possession remained relatively even throughout the game, with an edge to Argentina, but by the end, the Belgians had created many more dangerous attempts, occasionally hurting themselves by getting caught offside.
Four minutes into stoppage time, Messi had the ball by himself in the zone, but his shot was stopped by Courtois. That led to a Belgian counterattack that ended with Axel Witself drilling a shot that sailed high. It would be the Belgian's last, best chance.
For the Belgians, it was one of the country's best Cup outings ever, after their fourth place finish in 1986. A young squad, they will almost certainly be back and pose a true threat in Russia in 2018.
Argentina returns to the semifinals at a World Cup for the first time since the 1990 tournament in Italy. The only other time these two teams met at the World Cup was in a semifinal match in 1986, the last time Argentina won the tournament. They beat the Red Devils, 2-0 that time.