Lionel Messi, Argentina move a step closer to World Cup title

Lionel Messi, Argentina move a step closer to World Cup title
Argentina forward Lionel Messi (10) celebrates with teammates after beating Belgium, 1-0, in a World Cup quarterfinal game on Saturday at Mane Garrincha National Stadium in Brasilia. (Adrian Dennis / AFP / Getty Images)

Now that Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez have all gone home and Brazil's Neymar has gone to the hospital, this World Cup belongs to Argentina's Lionel Messi.

Nobody knows that better than Belgium, which pushed, pummeled and otherwise punished Messi for most of Saturday afternoon, only to see Argentina and its unflappable captain emerge with a 1-0 victory in Brasilia that sends them on to Wednesday's semifinal.


"Messi is the star player, the star striker," said Belgium Coach Marc Wilmots. "Everybody knows he's an extraordinary player. He showed his ability today to control the ball and give his teammates a break."

Argentina got the only goal it needed from Gonzalo Higuain in the eighth minute, earning a spot in the World Cup's final four for the first time since 1990. It will meet the Netherlands, a winner over stubborn Costa Rica in penalty kicks in Saturday's late game.

But that's still one big step from where Messi wants to be — the World Cup final. He is arguably the best player in the sport, the only man to win four consecutive world-player-of-the-year awards. Yet at 27 he has never played for a world championship.

And that remains the only thing missing from an otherwise unparalleled career.

Messi was everywhere Saturday, dribbling down the touchlines, drawing defenders into the corners — even dropping back to repeatedly play the ball at the center stripe. He missed a chance to get his fifth goal of the tournament and give Argentina some breathing room when he failed to beat goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on a breakaway in stoppage time.

"He played a wonderful match," said Argentina Coach Alejandro Sabella. "It's not only about scoring goals. Every move he makes is a sign of hope. What he does … the influence he has on the pitch, is decisive.

"Matches have different facets to them besides a goal. A player like Messi receives a ball and then he almost never loses it."

At one point late in the first half Messi maneuvered in and around three defenders, eventually earning a foul. It hardly mattered that the resulting free kick was high.

"He gives us that water in the desert," the professorial Sabella said. "And today when it was dry, he gave us a breath of fresh air every time he held onto the ball.

"It is something you truly value."

The game's lone goal went to Higuain, who took advantage of a couple of lucky breaks to score.

The sequence started with Belgium captain Vincent Kompany getting stripped at midfield. Angel Di Maria, who wound up with the ball on the edge of the box, tried to flick a left-footed pass ahead to Pablo Zabaleta, who was cutting toward the goal, but the ball struck the foot of defender Jan Vertonghen and bounced directly to Higuain.

From there, Higuain's right-footed volley split two defenders on its way to the far corner of the net for his first goal of this World Cup.

"I was calm and it finally came to me," Higuain said. "I felt the confidence from the coaches and my teammates. A striker wants a goal, and what is more beautiful than doing it today?"


Wilmots, the Belgian coach, was less enthusiastic.

"It's a small mistake but there you go," he said. "It's a quarterfinal. The details made the difference."

Twenty-five minutes later Di Maria hobbled off with a right thigh injury. He will undergo further examinations Sunday.

Meanwhile Belgium, which hadn't scored a goal earlier than the 70th minute in winning its first four games here, got busy late again. But Argentina's defense did just enough to make the 1-0 lead hold up and send the Europeans home.

Yet Wilmots, for one, still isn't convinced the best team won.

"We were not impressed by the Argentinians, absolutely not," he said. "It's just an ordinary team."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter: @kbaxter11