World Cup: Argentina beats Belgium to reach semifinals
Atlanta, Ga (CNN) — If anyone wondered about Argentina's World Cup-winning credentials, surely there can be little doubt now.
Not because of the convincing nature of the team's football thus far mind you -- far from it.
But after a solitary goal from Gonzalo Higuain was enough to overcome Belgium in Brasilia on Saturday, "La Albiceleste" are only one game away from the final of this gripping World Cup.
The win also marked the first time Argentina has reached a World Cup semifinal since 1990, when -- after overcoming host nation Italy on penalties -- it was eventually defeated by West Germany in a bad-tempered final.
That came four years after Diego Maradona inspired the country's second title success in football's showpiece event, in Mexico, following victory on home soil in 1978.
"After 24 years this is a good tribute to this squad -- they will go down in history as one of the best four teams in the world and we will see if they can go one step more," coach Alejandro Sabella told reporters.
While Brazil will be without injured star striker Neymar for Tuesday's semifinal against Germany -- and the rest of the tournament if the host goes any further -- the Argentines came through relatively unscathed against a Belgian team tipped as a pre-tournament dark horse.
Angel Di Maria, who scored Argentina's winning goal in the previous round, is in doubt for Wednesday's match against the Netherlands or Costa Rica, who play later Saturday, after coming off with a thigh injury in the first half.
Alejandro Sabella's team had struggled in the group stage, requiring a dramatic late strike from Lionel Messi to overcome unfancied Iran and only narrowly defeating Nigeria and Bosnia.
An uncomfortable extra-time victory over Switzerland in the round of 16 also hardly inspired confidence.
But who cares when a team has four-time world player of the year Messi in its ranks?
The Barcelona star has finally announced his arrival on the World Cup stage in Brazil after a disappointing 2010 tournament in South Africa and only a few substitute appearances as a 17-year-old in Germany four years prior.
Messi had scored four goals in four games coming in to this encounter, as well as providing a fantastic dribbling assist for di Maria to secure victory over Switzerland.
"I felt he played a wonderful match," Sabella said. "It's not only scoring goals, it's having possession, taking out three opponents, and every move he makes is a sign of hope for us and endangers our opponents.
"That a player like Messi almost never loses the ball is water in the desert -- he gives us that water in the desert.
"Today when the terrain was dry he gave us that breath of fresh air every time he had the ball."
But Belgium has talent of its own, a golden generation even.
With genuinely top-class players such as Eden Hazard, Thibault Courtois and Vincent Kompany in the squad, this was a quality of opposition Argentina had yet to face this tournament.
Perhaps aware of this, the South Americans looked sharp from the off, backed by a considerable support in the stands, bouncing and singing in the early afternoon sun.
A glorious Messi pass early on almost gave the fans something more to shout about, but Ezequiel Lavezzi's cross couldn't find Higuain in the center.
However, the Napoli striker would not be denied shortly after.
Kompany lost possession as he stepped out of defense and when di Maria's deflected pass found Higuain, he swiveled to strike the ball in to the corner of Courtois' net from just outside the penalty area.
It was a fine instinctive finish from a man who had failed to find the net all tournament before this game, and it drew him level with Messi on five World Cup career goals.
Belgium sought a quick response.
Kevin de Bruyne -- who netted the opening goal against the U.S. in the last 16 -- fired a shot high and wide from roughly 30 yards out after 13 minutes and once more shortly after which Sergio Romero did well to push away in the Argentina goal.
Argentina suffered a blow after 33 minutes as di Maria went down clutching his thigh. The Real Madrid winger looked in considerable pain as he left the field but was able to take a place alongside his teammates on the bench to watch the remainder of the game.
Messi then went close from a free-kick just before halftime after the ever-unsubtle Marouane Fellaini had made four clear attempts to bring down the illusive striker.
The second half began much like the first had ended, with Argentina carving out the better chances.
Higuain nutmegged Kompany to put himself through on Courtois' goal but just when it looked like he was about to double the Argentine advantage, the crossbar came to the rescue of the despairing goalkeeper.
Again Belgium looked to respond, bringing on Romelu Lukaku for the ineffective Divock Origi -- who in the group stage was the first teenager to score at a World Cup since Messi -- and Dries Mertens for Kevin Mirallas.
With the Argentina defense being organized by the experienced pair of Martin Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay, the Belgians' best chance of success looked like it would come from a set-piece rather than open play.
Fellaini made a nuisance of himself on numerous occasions, pushing, bullying and harassing as defenders at corners and free-kicks.
However an inability to follow the offside rule repeatedly frustrated the Red Devils.
Belgium hadn't scored a goal earlier than the 70th minute in this tournament but as the game progressed, coach Marc Wilmots became ever more desperate on the sidelines.
"We were not impressed by the Argentinians, they were just an ordinary team," said the former Belgium international.
"They can distort the rhythm, they take 30 seconds to take a throw-in and the referee doesn't do anything. If I played that way I would have been destroyed by the Belgium press."
Seeking a lifeline, Wilmots pushed veteran defender Daniel van Buyten -- likely playing his last game before retirement -- forward to operate as an auxiliary striker.
But it was Argentina which came closest to scoring again, though Messi was unable to add to his 2014 tournament tally of four as the onrushing figure of Courtois blocked his dinked strike on the counter attack.
Belgium scrambled forward one final time but when Axel Witzel's ambitious long range effort flew over, Argentina could celebrate.