BRASILIA (Reuters) – With 82 minutes of brilliant game management, Argentina dispelled the notion they are a one man team dependent wholly on captain Lionel Messi to win the World Cup.
The South Americans united in a canny display to outfox a talented but inexperienced Belgium side 1-0 yesterday, with their gifted playmaker, the difference in all four previous wins in Brazil, a mere cog in the team wheel.
Once Gonzalo Higuain put Argentina in front in the eighth minute of the quarter-final, the South Americans and their feared forward line surprisingly opted to shut up shop.
They held the ball, steered away from attacks, ensured a defensive platform was always in place and employed the odd bit of infuriating time wasting to throw the Belgians out of sync.
Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero only made one save, a parry from a Kevin De Bruyne effort from distance midway through the first half.
It was a paltry return from a Belgium side packed full of creative talents and which forced United States goalkeeper Tim Howard to make a record 16 saves in their last 16 win played at high intensity and swinging from end to end.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella clearly did not want a repeat of that performance.
He made three changes, one enforced, bringing into the midfield Lucas Biglia, who screened the backline brilliantly alongside Javier Mascherano in a match that rarely got out of second gear.
The sharp passing of the two able ball players nullified the Belgians on the rare occasion when the European side attempted to close the ball down quickly.
Higuain led the attack but few were willing to join him. Minutes before the halftime break, Messi was waving at his reluctant team mates to make a run forward as he attempted to launch a break. None bothered.
Despite Argentina’s guarded approach, the cautious Belgians persisted with a back four, and Axel Witsel protecting them, clearly worried about the carnage Messi could wreak given the chance, a prospect discussed exhaustively prior to the game.
A swift trio of attacks at the start of the second period by Argentina almost resulted in a second goal before they returned to time-killing ways more akin to Italian sides of old.
No chances were taken.
Throw ins almost always went long and down the line, while left back Jose Maria Basanta rarely ventured past halfway and right back Pablo Zabaleta reached the byline only twice.
The frustrated Belgians could do nothing.
Long balls to the towering attacking midfielder Marouane Fellaini and defender-turned-late-emergency-striker Daniel Van Buyten proved fruitless with Ezequiel Garay and Martin Demichelis, the other Sabella switch, coping comfortably.
After great rivals Brazil were guilty of using rough tactics to disrupt a talented Colombia side in Friday’s quarter-final win, Argentina showed there was another, more rule-abiding way to stop an opponent.
The teamwork was almost lost when Messi was sent through on goal in stoppage time with the headline writers ready to sing his praises once again but, perhaps thankfully, his shot was saved and the work of the collective remained the key.
“We’ve seen the experience of Argentina, they can distort rhythm, it takes 30 seconds to take a throw in, the referee does nothing so they can break our rhythm and speed,” Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said. “We were not impressed by the Argentines, absolutely not, it’s just an ordinary team.”