Argentina did nothing for Marc Wilmots.
“We were not impressed by Argentina,” the Belgium manager remarked following his side’s 1-0 loss to the Albiceleste in the quarterfinals. “They were just ordinary.”
Argentina was also out-possessed by the Red Devils, won fewer corners and took the same number of shots. But a moment of magic less than nine minutes into the match proved enough for Argentina, who went on to win by a 1-0 scoreline for the third time at the 2014 World Cup.
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After accepting the ball in a deep-lying position, Lionel Messi made a delightful pirouette to evade a challenge before sweeping the ball to Angel di Maria, who moved it down the right before delivering the pass that allowed Gonzalo Higuain to score with the single swing of his right leg.
It was an exquisite piece of play in a match that was generally anything but, and in that the victory at Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha was Argentina in a nutshell—workmanlike and unimpressive, but punctuated by a key moment of Messi genius.
“He is water in the desert,” extolled manager Alejandro Sabella, who was full of praise for his captain following the final whistle. “He doesn’t just score. The other day he played the pass for Di Maria to score against Switzerland. Today, when the terrain was dry, he gave us that breath of fresh air.”
If Messi is the oasis, Di Maria has been at the head of the caravan—linking the Barcelona maestro to his teammates throughout these past weeks in Brazil. That he will miss Wednesday’s semifinal against the Netherlands is devastating to the South Americans’ chances, as few players in the game are so adept at connecting the middle third of the park with the attacking one.
Enzo Perez will likely come in Di Maria, and while his history as a right winger and recent conversion to central midfield would seem to bode well for Sabella’s setup, he is comparatively inexperienced at international level.
Against the Netherlands, perhaps more than in any of their previous matches, Argentina will retreat within themselves and play to the strengths that have got them this far. In other words, they will set up a strong defensive shape and wait for Messi to do something special.
While Messi and Di Maria, and more recently Higuain, have been handed the credit for knockout wins over Switzerland and Belgium, Javier Mascherano and Ezequiel Garay have quietly put together exceptional campaigns.
Garay, the Benfica defender, was a colossus against Belgium and one of his side’s best distributors of the ball against Switzerland. Neither Divock Origi nor Romelu Lukaku had anything on him in Brasilia; in Sao Paulo he snuffed out Josip Drmic and Haris Seferovic.
Mascherano, meanwhile, has been keeping things neat and tidy in the centre of the park, and while his performance against Belgium was perhaps somewhat understated, it was his efficiency and physicality that smothered the creativity of Kevin De Bruyne.
The 30-year-old has also dealt with a revolving door of midfield partners at this World Cup, and Perez will become just the latest to start alongside him when Wednesday’s semifinal kicks off at the new Corinthians Stadium.
Sergio Aguero’s return to fitness could also prove vital against the Netherlands, especially as he’ll be replacing the completely ineffective Ezequiel Lavezzi. Messi’s work in support of Aguero and Higuain will allow the pair of forwards some useful space in the goalmouth, although the Dutch will do their utmost to limit the 27-year-old’s touches in deep positions.
“We have to make sure that Messi doesn’t get the ball,” stated Netherlands defender Bruno Martins Indi. “Every team has its strong and weak points.”
Argentina’s strength is its talisman, and his ability to deliver moments of magic at key times. Their weakness is an inability to muster anything meaningful without Messi’s influence, although to this point they’ve been able to stop their opponents from playing just long enough to reach the oasis, the “water in the desert.”
Time and again they have done just enough to win, and when all is said and done that may well be enough.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.