Argentina 1 Belgium 0: Four talking points as Chelsea man disappoints
Argentina 1 Belgium 0: Four talking points as la Albiceleste reach their first semi-final since 1990
Higuain comes to the World Cup party
Diego Maradona claimed that Argentina were too reliant on Lionel Messi and reaching just 40 per cent of their potential ahead of the Albiceleste’s World Cup quarter-final. Who are we to disagree with the great man himself? Well, the words appeared to resonate with Gonzalo Higuain. Messi had a couple of bright moments in the first half, but it was his strike partner who shone against Belgium. The 26-year-old has received criticism for his ineffective performances at this tournament, made all the more noticeable by Sergio Aguero’s ongoing fitness battle. But Higuain ended his World Cup drought against the Belgians with a finish that Napoli and Real Madrid supporters are well-accustomed to. Angel di Maria’s pass ricocheted into the path of Higuain, who instinctively finished past Thibaut Courtois in the eighth minute. It settled the striker’s nerves and he went to enjoy his best 80 minutes of the World Cup. Higuain’s link-up play was much-improved to hush growing suggestions that he can’t play alongside Messi, whilst his control was much sharper than previous games – the 1-0 win against Iran springs to mind. The Napoli striker could – and should – have doubled his lead in the 54th minute after a brilliant run which included a nutmeg on Vincent Kompany, but his powerful effort hit the crossbar. Still, it is encouragement for the South Americans ahead of a semi-final clash against Netherlands or Costa Rica.
Eden Hazard was considered an unlucky loser in the race to be crowned the PFA player of the year in April, missing out to the prolific Luis Suarez. Coming off another fine season, the Chelsea forward appeared ready to have a good World Cup, especially considering Belgium’s Group H opponents (Algeria, Russia and South Korea). However, the 23-year-old has been a huge disappointment at his first major tournament. Hazard did provide assists in wins against Algeria and Russia, but the former Lille playmaker failed to build on a decent start. Did the rigours of a demanding Premier League season take its toll on Hazard? Possibly. He was much-maligned for his poor defensive cover against USA, but Hazard could be forgiven if he was delivering the goods up top. But the forward was sluggish and his passing sloppy. Contrast Hazard’s performances with that of Colombia golden boy James Rodriguez, who was always looking for the ball and creating chances for his team-mates in a 2-1 loss to Brazil, and the conclusion is Hazard has a long, long way to go to be considered in the same bracket as Messi. At least the Belgium star knows it.
Wilmots runs out of super subs
Belgium may have reached the Word Cup last eight, but the manner of their performances has been frustrating. Verging on a cliche at this stage, Belgium are a collection of talented individuals but not a talented team. Manager Marc Wilmots has been praised for his effective substitutions. Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens rescued a 2-1 win against Algeria, Divock Origi netted the winner from the bench against Russia and substitute Romelu Lukaku scored against USA in the last 16. But against Argentina, Wilmots ran out of aces in his 23-man pack. Mertens had little impact following his introduction and his decision-making was unacceptably poor. Chelsea striker Lukaku, like Origi, failed to ruffle experienced centre-half pair Demichelis and Garay. Hazard, as mentioned above, has been disappointing and Wilmots was reluctant to take off the Chelsea man, presumably hoping for a bit of magic. Perhaps most frustratingly of all, especially if your a Manchester United supporter, has been the absence of Adnan Januzaj. Raheem Sterling impressed for England, and the 19-year-old’s would have brought an element of surpris and could have been the joker card which Wilmots required with 15 minutes remaining. Instead, he opted for the predictable Nacer Chadli and Argentina held on.
Can Argentina create further history?
It has been one of the most entertaining World Cups of the past two decades, but there is unquestionably a lack of great footballing sides at the tournament. In 2010, we had Spain and Germany. In 2014, Brazil and Argentina look the most likely. But Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad is a shadow of the great Selecao sides of past years, containing the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu, Lucio – the list could go on and on. Argentina have more attacking quality in their squad, with Messi the talisman and gunning to emulate Maradona’s World Cup glory in 1986. At this stage, Argentina do look the best bet. Neymar’s tournament-ending injury and Thiago Silva’s suspension from the semi-final with Germany cast doubt on Brazil’s hopes, Joachim Low’s men haven’t been overly convincing, whilst Costa Rica and the Netherlands won’t strike fear in Argentina hearts, aside from Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie of course. Alejandro Sabella’s side have already become the first Argentina squad to reach the World Cup last four since 1990, and with Messi in good form, it looks like this will be their tournament.