This is not the greatest Argentina team – certainly not a side with the lustre of 1986 – but the sense grows that it might just be their time. The semi-final against the Netherlands in Sao Paulo falls on the nation’s Independence Day, 48 hours from now, and the blue-and-white invasion down there will need to be seen to be believed.
It is hard to overstate the psychological significance of passing beyond the quarter-finals at last. “Finally Sergio Goycochea can rest in peace,” La Nacion wrote after the 1-0 win over Belgium on Saturday, recalling the goalkeeping legend of the 1990 tournament, who saved penalties against Yugoslavia and Italy in the knockout stage and was close to saving the kick which sealed the World Cup for West Germany in Rome. Argentina had not made it to a semi-final since.
The Buenos Aires newspapers counted out yesterday how long their nation has had to wait to reach the last four, where they face the Dutch: 27 games in World Cup finals and 8,771 days.
“Trapped by a script it is hard to plagiarise” was how one put, which is why there is no criticism of the prosaic way they progressed past Belgium – a performance which was rather less than beautiful.
There were certainly divine moments, delivered by Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria, who underwent tests on a thigh injury yesterday and is a doubt for Wednesday’s match. But the selection of Higuain as man of the match underlined that there was little individualism in the Estadio Nacional. The collective was better than the sum of the parts.
“Today more than ever we were a team,” Messi reflected. “We didn’t create much but neither did they. We ran more than ever, because to get through we had to run that much and be totally committed. We played a game I am not used to doing: to run.” As the columnist Christian Grosso put it: “They did not care whether the bow was wrapped around the tissue paper.”
The big performance came from Manchester City’s Martin Demichelis, whose selection by Alex Sabella in place of Napoli’s Federico Fernandez was justified. Demichelis is a better defender than his reputation at City has sometimes suggested. One of the challenges of operating alongside Vincent Kompany, as Demichelis has at City, is that Kompany tends to be an individualist, not always the best at defending as a pair, or looking out for his partner.
Demichelis looked secure with Ezequiel Garay in the face of a Belgian’s aerial bombardment, as they ended the game with Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Daniel van Buyten all in the penalty area, looking to punish what coach Marc Wilmots clearly saw as a weak Argentina defence. “We didn’t suffer,” Messi observed, “because our players at the back had a great day and won everything in the air.”
Wilmots did his reputation little good with a subsequent attack on Argentinian negativity and gamesmanship. The South American nation won because they displayed greater balance and skill in the first half and then closed the door. Kompany did not agree with his manager’s claims about the opposition. “No, I don’t want to say this,” he declared. “They have positive players and their players individually can make the difference, they can make something happen. It would be difficult for me to be against them.”
More had been expected from the great young Belgian generation than this. Fellaini (their biggest threat on Saturday), Kevin De Bruyne and Jan Vertonghen were the only Belgians who could look back on the game with no regrets yesterday.
Argentina’s acute desire to give their big neighbour a bloody nose has been given new energy by Neymar’s departure from the tournament and Pablo Zabaleta pointed out that home advantage will not be a bed of roses for the Brazilians this week. “It can be both advantage and disadvantage,” the defender said. “There is pressure, but at the moment everything is going well for Brazil. They have won all their games.”
The hope in Argentina is that the immense Dutch workload will take its toll in Sao Paulo. The Netherlands’ Grand Tour has taken them from Salvador to Porto Alegre, Sao Paulo, Fortaleza, back to Salvador and now Sao Paulo once more. “Miles and heat. These small details sometimes define the big duels,” La Nacion coolly observed.
A Brazil-Argentina final has been the home nation’s worst nightmare. Defeat in the Maracana to the noisy, boastful neighbour would be about as grim as the 1950 final against Uruguay – or grimmer.
“It’s a huge mistake if we start thinking about Brazil-Argentina in the final,” said Zabaleta. “We have to play one more game, so we just need to keep the feet on the ground.” But Argentina believe they know where this is all heading.