Argentina succeeded in not letting Belgium get into any rhythm and that sealed the deal after Gonzalo Higuain struck early in the last of the lunchtime kickoffs in this World Cup.
Belgium could not prise open space in the middle Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia hustling in that area where they were joined by Lionel Messi. That reined in Eden Hazard and till Belgium threw bodies forward in search of the equaliser, they couldn’t really ask enough questions to a backline that could be their Achilles heel against Holland in the Wednesday’s semi-final.
Belgium tried stretching the game but first, the delivery service wouldn’t have done any local pizzeria proud, and second, Divock Origi doesn’t have the muscle to be a targetman at this level. When Belgium moved the big Marouane Fellaini up and brought on Romelu Lukaku, the Argentine backline was tested somewhat. It was too little too late.
Argentina on the other hand played a ponderous game. Messi had earlier mentioned that it gets too hot to play in such conditions and maybe that’s why the pace in the France-Germany quarter-final too was sluggish. It could also be that with an early goal, Argentina decided to play with the hand-brake on, focusing more on letting Belgium tire as they try to find the equaliser. And as Belgium would do that, Argentina would hit them on the break. Messi almost did.
This was a tactical masterstroke from coach Alejandro Sabella. It helped Messi, playing near the centre-circle most of the time, disrupt the shape of Belgium’s defence by drawing players to him, holding the ball and then finding a teammate on the inside channel. Messi did that with Angel di Maria once and but for Vincent Kompany, it possibly would have done game, set and match in the first 30 minutes.
Again the ability to play differently, as Germany coach Joaquim Loew said after Friday’s quarter-final, showed the importance of experience. By opting for four in the midfield, Argentina blunted Belgium and made their attacks predictable. Argentina’s own attacks were being directed by Messi from an unlikely area. Their fans have come to Brazil in large numbers and after every game or even during it, hearing the chant Maradona is better than Pele. Even when he is not scoring, the cult of Messi continues to grow.