As Argentina’s players danced, and Leo Messi sang, Belgian manager Marc Wilmots was in no mood to congratulate them about reaching the semi-finals for the first time in 24 years.
By contrast, he was rather begrudging after his team’s deserved 1-0 defeat. [REPORT]
“We were not impressed by Argentina,” Wilmots declared. “Absolutely not. They are just an ordinary team.
“If we had equalised in the last few seconds, Argentina were dead. They were finished.”
To a certain degree, Wilmots is correct.
By that point in the game, Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella had put on four defensive midfielders. His side were by then mostly just interested in containment.
It was a remarkable regression, and had the potential to get them caught out in a manner that would have been as damning as when Jose Pekerman took off Juan Roman Riqueleme against Germany in the penalty shoot-out defeat of 2006.
It’s even more remarkable how that approach ensured Argentina’s entire campaign, and so much of that history, still came down to the open-ended luck of a single minute of football.
Shortly into stoppage-time, Leo Messi was put through on goal. It seemed like a sight with a certain inevitability. Yet, after a World Cup in which the number-10 has been one of the best players and so impressively applied all that wonderful talent, he suffered one of his more mediocre moments of the tournament.
Rather than round Thibaut Courtois, Messi opted to shoot, and consequently failed to beat the Belgian goalkeeper for the eighth in game in succession. A curious trend from his club resurfaced. That could have been written off, except for the fact it almost led to his national team’s collapse.
Within seconds, Romelu Lukaku had the ball at the other end, and was pummelling it into the box with the kind of drilled cross that could have gone anywhere. Had it gone into the net, Wilmots might well have been right.
Argentina could have been finished. Given how Sabella had completely withdrawn his team, it would have been difficult to see how he could have re-arranged for another rally.
As such, Messi’s miss could have had a disproportionately monumental effect.
It would have been ironic, given what has happened in this World Cup so far.
It would also have been hugely unfair, given how the majority of the 90 minutes unfolded.
Until 87 minutes, at least, Argentina were full value for their win. In that, they were like Germany against France. They may not have been as impressive as Wilmots would have accepted, but they were imposing.
In difficult early-afternoon conditions, at the most exacting stage of the competition so far, against the best opposition they’ve played so far, Argentina offered their most controlled performance.
From that, there were more positives all over the field.
Ezequiel Garay looked increasingly solid at the back, Javier Mascerano was better linking the previously suspect defence and disconnected attack - making both look better - while one of the forwards other than Messi finally fired.
Gonzalo Higuain at last offered the exact type of finish you would expect from a striker of his status, ending his longest ever drought for his country.
“I felt that confidence,” Higuain declared. That could be crucial in the last two games, particularly with Angel Di Maria’s injury.
In terms of the potential effect of one goal on a striker, you only have to look at the most famous case. Paolo Rossi didn’t get his first goal of 1982 until the third last game of that World Cup either.
The strike may be restorative.
Messi, meanwhile, was as good as ever. In some ways, although he didn’t score, this was arguably his most complete performance too. He was utterly sensational in parts, repeatedly humiliating poor Marouane Fellaini. One long-range pass was luscious.
It is also somewhat symbolic that, having scored in all the first three games and provided the assist in the fourth, Messi’s contribution to the goal was further back this time. He played the key ball that set up the move.
It emphasised his centrality to the team, and it goes beyond his magnificent touches and talent.
For all the justified criticism of Argentina’s open defence, Messi’s very presence prevents team from exposing it in the way they should. If you don’t compromise some of your attack by sacrificing three or four players to stifling the number-10, he will hurt you.
It presents a push-and-pull in every game as well as a dilemma for every manager, one that may well decide the destination of this trophy.
Wilmots ultimately failed to deal with that dilemma. His rather “ordinary” response allowed Messi to dominate a game to a greater extent than at any point in this tournament so far.
There’s also the way in which he offers the ultimate out-ball. He relieves pressure like no other player.
“The influence he has on the pitch as matches have different facets besides a goal,” Sabella said. “That a player like Messi never loses the ball and brings two or three opponents together, it is water in the desert. He gives us that, water in the desert. The other day [against Switzerland], he gave us that pass to Di Maria to score the goal. Today, when the terrain was dry, he gave us that breath of fresh air and that is something we truly value.”
And yet, Messi might have been responsible for the most costly moment of all.
That should not necessarily bring criticism of the player, especially given his tournament and game. It does, however, indicate there is at least some value to what Wilmots said.
Like every team left in this World Cup, there is a remaining fragility to Argentina. The final three minutes emphasised that.
In the last 120 of this tournament, just like the first 87 of this match, they need to get it under control.
Or, at the least, give it to Messi.
They at least have a solution.
Miguel Delaney is covering all things Argentina at the World Cup for Eurosport.
- Sports & Recreation
- Leo Messi