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Executive Sports Co. and FIFA World Cup 2014: What we learned, Day 24
Argentina 1, Belgium 0
Argentina may not be just Messi and 10 other guys, but it may have to be next round. The good news for Argentina -- besides from beating Belgium to advance anyway -- is that it was able to do so without Lio Messi providing all the offense. It was Gonzalo Higuain scoring Argentina's lone goal on Saturday, and he nearly added a second goal later in the match.
The bad news is that Argentina's attack seemed at its best when Messi was linking up with Angel Di Maria. In the first half Messi let go of a beautiful through ball to Di Maria, who got to the ball, moved it to his left foot and got off a shot that was blocked. Then Di Maria went down, and after returning to the game for a minute, he went down again before being subbed off with what appeared to be some kind of upper leg injury.
After that Argentina's attack didn't look as strong, as it went 40 minutes without a shot attempt.
What's important though is Di Maria's status for the next round. Sergio Aguero was already hurt and did not play today, and should Di Maria not be healthy enough to play in the next match, Messi may just have to do it all by himself again.
While Messi gets all the attention, it's not like Argentina can't defend. It's now played five matches in this World Cup and allowed only three goals, with two clean sheets in its two knockout round matches against Belgium today and Switzerland earlier this week. Scoring goals is how you win matches, but you can't lose if you never allow one, either.
On Saturday a Belgian team that was absolutely relentless in its attack against the United States in the last round looked disorganized and hopeless against Argentina. Belgium kept trying to get the ball in the penalty area for a goal chance, and time after time one of Argentina's players sent the ball right back out. Any time he failed, Sergio Romero was there to clean up behind him.
Tim Howard would have killed to have as easy a day as Romero had.
Belgium will be back, and will be better . It was the darkhorse, as it was a young side that's built up some momentum in recent years, and although this World Cup is over for the Belgians, there are bright days ahead.
You have to wonder if the team's youth worked against it -- as did its health, as having the giant Christian Benteke available today would have helped a bit -- at times in this World Cup. Eden Hazard, who is a very good player, looked helpless quite often during Belgium's five games, and the attack overall seemed a bit too dependent on trying to find the giant afro that is Marouane Fellaini in the middle of the box for a header.
Time after time Belgium got close to a big moment, but it seemed to feel the pressure of the World Cup on its shoulders every time before botching the attempt. That should change with more time and experience on the global stage.
Netherlands 0 (4), Costa Rica 0 (3)
The Netherlands are gritty: Getting past Costa Rica was not pretty. Getting past Costa Rica was not easy. The Dutch had to outlast a team that parked the bus on them for much of 120 minutes and while they weren't able to convert, they did not allow the frustration to get the better of them.
Costa Rica had frustrated the likes of Uruguay, Italy and the English in the group stage and found ways to sneak winners against the first two teams during moments of weakness for those teams. The Dutch did not show such weakness and were able to win out in the mental head game that penalty kicks tend to be.
Whether it was Tim Krul trying to get in the heads of Costa Rican penalty takers, Bruno Martins pushing the envelope, or Arjen Robben making meals of even the slightest contact, this team is showing that they are more than just the pretty boy traditional Dutch sides of years past. This team has that extra edge that championship sides tend to have, whether or not that makes them more or less likeable is up for some debate.
Costa Rica was no fluke: After winning a group that featured Italy, England and Uruguay, there was some thought that the moons had all lined up perfectly for the Ticos and that it was more a string of good luck that did the trick than merit from the CONCACAF side. A penalty kick win over Greece didn't do much to change that line of thinking, but their effort on Saturday against the Netherlands really drove the message home. Costa Rica were no fluke.
Manager Jorge Luis Pinto, the Colombian who gave this Costa Rican side a tactical identity in Brazil, allowed this team to exploit their strengths. This team defended efficiency and discipline. They attacked with precision and determination.
The effort that the Costa Ricans gave at the World Cup as a unit, and the remarkable fortitude they displayed in the back -- led by probably the goalkeeper of the tournament in Keylor Navas -- is the type that World Cups tend to make immortal. This Costa Rican side will be talked about for years as the team who took on giants and, more often than not, came out on top.