Argentina 1-0 Belgium: A bridge too far
Belgium bowed out of World Cup 2014 with a deserved 1-0 defeat at the hands of Argentina, who go through to the semis thanks to a wonderful early goal from Gonzalo Higuain.
Marc Wilmots kept faith with Divock Origi up front and resisted the temptation to go with Steven Defour in midfield with Kevin Mirallas replacing Dries Mertens on the right.
Belgium began nervously and were worryingly open in the opening stages when Ezequiel Lavezzi played the ball across goal, which was cut out by Vincent Kompany, who had an eventful opening 45 minutes. The captain paid the ultimate price for coming out from the back with the ball and conceding possession. Di Maria’s ball deflected into the path of Gonzalo Higuain who instinctively swung his right boot through the ball and found the bottom corner. It was a stunning way for a player who hitherto had struggled, to gatecrash this World Cup party. His Napoli teammate Dries Mertens had warned the Belgians but it was an outstanding piece of centre-forward play befitting the occasion.
Regrettably for Marc Wilmots, his side showed next to no attacking prowess in the opening 45 minutes although one rare highlight was the supply of quality balls from Jan Vertonghen at leftback. De Bruyne was having a miserable time with corners and Belgium lacked the quick combinations in and around the penalty box that were required to get past an Argentine defence that had been accused of lacking in pace and agility. Messi was on song both defensively, shackling Witsel and going forward, playing perhaps the pass of the tournament to Di Maria in the first half. Kompany, who from a leadership perspective responded superbly after the goal, was on hand to block the effort which put paid to the Real Madrid man’s game as he sustained a thigh injury.
Kevin De Bruyne wasn’t enjoying his most fruitful game but what can always be said of the Wolfsburg man is that he never hides. He tried to bring Belgium back into proceedings, first with a shot that surprised Sergio Romero who admittedly didn’t have to recover a great deal of distance and then with an improvised cross into the box with the outside of the boot that was unfortunate to find no red shirt.
Messi went agonisingly close with a thunderous free kick struck from just outside the box that he had won himself after Fellaini had several nibbles at the elusive genius. Vertonghen then found Mirallas in the box and though the Everton man had made a great run from in-to-out, the angle was always against his diving header. Divock Origi had done enough against the USA to convince Wilmots of the merit of starting him again but today his inexperience was naked and changes would have to be made. Belgium had been behind before in the tournament but not against opposition of this calibre.
Wilmots waited to bring on Lukaku and Mertens (for Mirallas) and it almost backfired spectacularly. Higuain, who had the bit between his teeth, went on a rampaging run, nutmegging Kompany before grazing the crossbar with his shot, moments after Courtois had been equally helpless when Perez’s effort had deflected wide off van Buyten. Lavezzi was also causing problems for Alderweireld down Argentina’s left and his width was used much more effectively than Belgium’s.
As against Algeria when Belgium were trailing, the emphasis began to move towards exploiting the aerial ability of Marouane Fellaini. He headed over from a sterling Vertonghen cross and Argentina were fortunate when De Bruyne’s low cross deflected straight into the arms of Romero but in fairness, it was nothing less than the imperious Garay deserved.
Wilmots’ final throw of the dice was to withdraw the disappointing Eden Hazard but once again those clamouring for Adnan Januzaj were disappointed to see Nacer Chadli enter the fray. De Bruyne continued to cast himself in the role of chief creator and he was linking up well with Lukaku down the right but that left Belgium shorn of a box presence. Wilmots resorted to sending the squad’s leading goalscorer Daniel van Buyten forward as Belgium desperately pumped the ball forward. That understandably left spaces at the back and Courtois went out with a flourish with a stunning save to get the better of the ominously advancing Messi. When Lukaku wrongly opted to cross and Witsel fired over with seconds remaining, all remaining hope for a salvage job was extinguished. The final whistle marked the end of Belgium’s return to tournament football in the sport’s most passionate nation.
We will undoubtedly reflect further on the tournament and indeed Wilmots’ tenure to date in the days to come but it’s worth remembering only one Belgian side in history has progressed further at the World Cup and that was back in 1986. The squad has amassed invaluable experience as both individuals and a group, which should stand them in good stead for France 2016 and Russia 2018. Just one final thought – Daniel van Buyten bowed out of international football after thirteen years, 83 caps and 10 goals. At 36, he was in the team of the group stages and deserves to go out after his outstanding service. His dedication and professionalism is an example to the other 22 players in the squad and it is to be hoped he has a role to play in Belgian football in the future. He won’t be on the field come the autumn but Belgium can look back on their first tournament in twelve years with heads firmly held high.