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In a game where Argentina booked their place in the quarterfinals, Belgium paid the price for their approach and Argentina dominated midfield. Shivam Kumar analyses the game in which Argentina took another step in their quest of World Cup glory.
In the first of the two intercontinental showdowns of the quarter-finals, two time winners and favourites Argentina took on the Belgians, looking to book a place in the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 24 years. The South Americans didn’t just have to face a strong Belgian team, but also a Brazilian crowd that would have loved to see their fierce neighbours falter in the quarters. With both the teams coming into the match having won all of their previous matches of the tournament, this one was certainly going to be a close call.
Argentina (4-2-3-1): Romero, Zabaleta, Garay, Demichelis, Basanta, Mascherano, Biglia, Di Maria, Messi, Lavezzi, Higuain
Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois, Alderweireld, Kompany, Van Buyten, Vertonghen, Fellaini, Witsel, Mirallas, De Bruyne, Hazard, Origi
Goals: Higuain 8’
It was evident from the previous games, that an effective way to counter Argentina would be to sit deep and look to hit them on the break, as they looked devoid of ideas at times in possession, most notably in their last match against Switzerland. Instead Belgium decided to take the game to Argentina rather than taking their foot off the pedal and soaking up the pressure. This was the first mistake.
The second was a tactical error. With Fellaini and Witsel starting in an advanced position, Alderweireld and Vertonghen joining the attack, a huge space got left between their midfield and the two centre backs for the Argentinian attack to exploit. Even while chasing the ball, the Belgian midfielders left behind a lot of room. To add to their misery, Fellaini failed to effectively conduct defensive transitions whenever they lost the ball. This left their defence exposed and allowed Messi to drop in the hole creating all sorts of problems. If it wasn’t for Vincent Kompany, Belgium could have easily conceded a couple of more goals.
Before the start of the match, the Argentine management was poised with the question – How to contain Kevin De Bruyne? Manager Alejandro Sabella chose his side keeping in mind the Belgian midfielder’s effective performance against the United States. Javier Mascherano was deployed in the midfield along with Lucas Biglia. The duo did a fine job controlling the midfield for the entire match. They sat comfortably in front of the four man defence, denying Kevin De Bruyne the room to operate and the Vfl Wolfsburg midfielder had to drift to the right flank to work up his team’s play. This made him less threatening and eased off the pressure from the Argentine defence.
This also created a suction effect in the midfield as Fellaini and Witsel looked to fill in the void left by De Bryune, leaving too much space behind them. The Argentinian defence was resolute enough to take care of the crosses that came in, Ezequiel Garay putting in a top show. Belgium didn’t have any notable chances to score, except a few which they didn’t find the back of the net with.
Lionel Messi put in his customary awesome performance, orchestrating the attack from the first whistle. A notable change in this match was Messi’s position of play. Instead of playing just behind the striker, he fell back to the centre circle most of the times, picking up the ball in the deep and releasing the wingers who gave the Belgian defence a torrid time. The Barcelona frontman had a goal scoring opportunity himself in the 2nd half, but Courtois saved from close range.
Gonzalo Higuain stepped up his performance from the previous matches, where he was a mere presence on the pitch, and fought shoulder to shoulder with Messi. He gave Argentina the lead with a clinical finish at the 8th minute and the early goal acted as a morale booster for him. Higuain covered the entire final third, making intelligent runs and taking up threatening positions – things which Argentina were missing against Switzerland. His presence at the heels of the Belgian defence allowed Messi to drop back and control the game from deep.
Gonzalo Higuain |It has to be the goal scorer, Gonzalo Higuain. In the build-up to the match, there was a huge criticism of Argentina in the light of their overdependence on the Barcelona man, Lionel Messi. Even former World Cup winner and legend, Diego Maradona came out and voiced his concern over it. Higuain, with his scintillating display, shed all the doubts over his and his team’s performance thus far. He had his best game of the tournament and added a new dimension to the Argentinian attack that struggled to find goals in their previous match. He could have scored a second goal but his shot grazed the crossbar in the 55th minute. Finally, it was his powerful finish that takes Argentina past Belgium into the semi-finals.
Argentina cruise to the semi-finals for the first time since the 1990 World Cup following a superb team performance by Alejandro Sabella’s side. They didn’t just outplay the young Belgium squad, but also survived a hostile Brazilian crowd. Although their celebrations were dampened by Angel Di Maria’s injury whose availability remains a doubt for the clash against the Netherlands on Wednesday, 9th of July. With Gonzalo Higuain finding his scoring foot, they will go in the semi-finals all guns blazing.
As for Belgium, they were always the neutral’s favourites. They successfully managed to do what most of the pundits expected of them, i.e reach the Quarter Finals. Anything more than that, would have been a bonus. Their young stars are just hitting their primes, and this leaves them a lot of positives to take.