It’s official: Argentina have belatedly arrived at the World Cup.
Prior to their clash with Belgium, teams had found it relatively easy to halt their attack by dropping deep and stifling Lionel Messi. Switzerland were moments away from the perfect execution in the last-16; Iran likewise.
It seemed inconceivable that Argentina could continue scraping through matches courtesy of a moment of brilliance from Messi. After their victory over (practically everyone’s dark horses) Belgium, it appears they no longer have to.
It was almost as if Angel di Maria’s extra time winner against the Swiss promoted the Argentinian support cast to headline acts, as though it had belatedly dawned on the South Americans that their role in Brazil was more than simply passing to Messi at every opportunity.
Messi has won numerous Liga titles, starred in Champions League finals and clinched four Ballon d’Ors. Now he finally has the support of a team capable of wrestling the World Cup out of host nation Brazil and back to Argentina for the first time since 1986.
A previously resolute Belgium side failed to cope with the emergence of Argentina’s other stars as the Europeans struggled to juggle the threat of Messi and his revitalised team-mates.
Gonzalo Higuain put in one of the tournament’s standout performances – starting with an instinctive swing of his right leg to put Argentina ahead, and finishing a width of the crossbar away from one of the solo goals of the tournament. A similar display in the semi-finals would likely cause havoc in either the Costa Rican or Dutch defence.
A rejuvenated Angel di Maria buzzed around, dropping deep to pick up the ball and weave across the Belgium defence. He might have only lasted 33 minutes before departing with an injury, but it was his pass that flicked off a defender and into the path of Higuain who stroked home the opener.
Substitute Enzo Perez, who played a pivotal role in Benfica’s remarkable treble-winning season, immediately set about hassling his rivals in red and kept the midfield ticking over alongside Javier Mascherano. Behind them, the previously shaky defence was unflappable as they superbly marshalled youngster Divock Origi and later Romelu Lukaku.
The upshot of the enhanced team performance was that Messi was afforded space to pull the strings. He sparked the opening goal with a fine display of pirouetting before picking out di Maria with a sublime raking pass that took six opponents out of the game.
Messi stands two games away from filling the gaping void on his résumé; the last achievement required to indisputably secure his place alongside Pele and Diego Maradona as the greatest of all-time.
It looked as though he was experiencing his final moments in Brazil when he was hunched over, gasping for air, ahead of extra-time against Switzerland but he found something extra that day – providing the assist for di Maria’s winner – and his endeavours were rewarded by his team-mates against Belgium.
You can’t win a World Cup on your own, and it finally looks as though Messi’s supporting cast have arrived at the optimum moment.
Ben Snowball - on Twitter: @BenSnowball
- Sports & Recreation
- Lionel Messi
- Angel di Maria