2014 FIFA World Cup: Day 21 Recap

Gonzalo Higuain celebrates his goal against Belgium
Gonzalo Higuain celebrates his goal against Belgium

Argentine Backbreaker

When Lionel Messi’s on the field, it’s easy to forget there are other extremely talented soccer players all around him, too. Angel Di Maria propelled his team to victory over the Swiss in the Round of 16, and in the quarter-finals it was Gonzalo Higuain playing hero for Argentina.

Both Di Maria and Messi opened the door for Higuain’s breakthrough in the eighth minute. Messi shook off a pair off Belgian defenders and spotted Di Maria open to his right; Di Maria then looked to lead Higuain into the penalty area with a through ball, but his pass deflected off a defender’s leg and hopped once to Higuain, who batted it straight to the bottom corner. Higuain nearly made it 2-0 in the 55th minute, carrying the ball the length of the field and beating the keeper with a powerful shot, but glancing it off the crossbar. Messi had a chance of his own in added time, streaking in alone against Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois, but rather than dribbling around the keeper as he charged out, Messi tried a chip shot that was blocked easily.

Belgium’s chances were few and far between: a header by Kevin Mirallas just before halftime slunk inches wide of the post, while Marouanne Fellaini got his amply coiffed head on a cross but sent it well over the goal. Belgium’s best scoring chance actually came off Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay, who slid in to block a cross but sent it spinning toward the bottom corner of his own goal—luckily for Garay, keeper Sergio Romero was in position to bail him. 

For such an offensively talented squad it’s surprising Argentina won their last two games each with a single goal, but it’s simply the threat of a sudden counterattack that keeps other teams on their heels. Belgium, like Switzerland before them, needed to take extra care to deliver their passes on target and keep their feet in order when dribbling, and that may have taken away some of their attacking creativity. Argentina aren’t a defensive powerhouse, but they certainly don’t give away too many promising opportunities.

All Hail Krul

Officially, he played less than a minute of the Netherlands’ match against Costa Rica, but there’s no denying Tim Krul is the biggest reason the Dutch are moving on to the World Cup semifinals.

Costa Rica, the Cinderella story of this World Cup after beating both Uruguay and Italy in the group stage, then dispatching Greece in the Round of 16, held on for dear life through 120 minutes, hoping the coin flip of the penalty shootout would favour them as it had against the Greeks. Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas, named man of match for his seven crucial saves, was far and away the best player on his team, with his crossbar coming a close second. The Netherlands held the ball for about two-thirds of the game, besieging the Costa Rican net from all sides, but a back line that ran five players wide actually kept Dutch opportunities to a minimum. When they came, though, Navas was ready.

Wesley Sneijder, who’s been snakebitten throughout the tournament, twice fired shots that met iron—in the 82nd minute when he crushed a free kick squarely off the post, and again in the 119th minute he thumped a shot over a crowd of Costa Ricans and off the crossbar. The Dutchman got his revenge, scoring easily in the shootout, but those final moments belonged to Krul, who entered the game during the one minute of added time after the second half of extra time.

It’s not often that a keeper looks like he’s got a 50-50 chance of stopping any player that steps to the spot to take a penalty kick, but Krul was as zoned in as any keeper has ever been. He stopped two of the five shots he faced, but remarkably guessed the right direction—penalty kicks come in so quickly all a keeper can do is guess where they’re going—on every single one. One might have noticed him approach each Costa Rican before their shot, making it seem almost as if he was telling them where to shoot. Whether that’s true or not, he was inside their heads from the moment he set a foot on his line.

Argentina and the Netherlands face off on Wednesday for a spot in the championship game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Drew Berner

Drew Berner is a freelance writer born and raised in Toronto and specializing in entertainment, sports and politics. He occasionally collects vinyl records, enjoys hate-watching the Blue Jays, appreciates good beer and great scotch, and goes to sleep each night with 120 lbs. of Great Dane draped over him (it’s a lot more comfortable than it sounds). Follow him on Twitter @DrewBerner for photos of huge dogs, observational humour and assorted sports rage.

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