By Paul Kennedy
Urged on by thousands of Argentines who made their way to Brasilia, Lionel Messi and Co., disposed of Belgium, 1-0, on Saturday afternoon to move into the semifinals of the World Cup.
For the first time in five games, Messi did not have a goal or assist, but it did not matter as La Albiceleste rarely looked threatened until late in the game. Argentina was composed and confident, something it did not look like earlier in the tournament, showing every sign of being a title-contender.
Here's why Argentina should be feeling good ...
No one-man show.This time Argentina won without Messi having to pull out a rabbit out of his bag of magic tricks late in the game. Not that he played no role in the game's lone goal, scored in the eighth minute. He did a nifty little dance in the middle of the field, turned and played a nice ball to Angel Di Maria, whose pass deflected off Jan Vertonghen's right foot into the path of Gonzalo Higuain, whose side-volley gave giant Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois no chance.
Argentina needed someone other than Messi to come through as he has now gone eight straight games without scoring against Courtois, whom he faced in Barcelona-Atletico Madrid battles in Spain and the Champions League.
Messi had a chance to extend Argentine's lead late in the game on a breakaway, but Courtois stoned him. Score that another one for the Tarantula over the Flea.
Higuain emerges.Higuain's goal was his first in five games at the 2014 World Cup after scoring four in four games four years ago. The 26-year-old Napoli striker, whose older brother Federico Higuainplays for the Columbus Crew, had his best game of the tournament and it could not have come at a more important moment.
Sergio Aguero has been hampered with a hamstring problem, and Di Maria had to leave the Belgium game in the first half with a thigh injury and was replaced by Enzo Perez.
Winning changes.Belgium peppered Tim Howard's goal for 27 shots on goal in the Red Devils' 2-1 overtime win over the USA on Tuesday. In retrospect, it shows how good the USA made Belgium look, as the Red Devils managed all of four shots on goal against Argentina.
Credit should go to Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella for the three defensive changes he made to his lineup against Belgium. Jose Basanta at left back for Marcos Rojo was necessitated by Rojo's suspension, but the insertions of Martin Demichelis at center back and Lucas Biglia -- who had played seven seasons with Anderlecht in Belgium -- in midfield were both winning changes.
Riding tide of support.Argentina's win moved it into the semifinals for the first time since 1990.
It couldn't to it in 1994 after losing Diego Maradona, kicked out for failing a drug test, it lost on Dennis Bergkamp's memorable goal in 1998 in France, it failed to even get out of the first round in 2002 and lost to Germany in the last two quarterfinals.
As the smiling Messi and his teammates celebrated with their fans, the overriding sense was that the Argentines are starting to enjoy themselves, something you can't say about their archrival Brazil, struggling with the enormous pressure of trying to win at home.
That image of a smiling Messi could take Argentina all the way to the title.