Argentina earns first trip to World Cup semifinals in 24 years

Cristiano Ronaldo is long gone. Neymar, in unfortunate circumstances, can only watch. This is Lionel Messi’s World Cup now, the last of soccer’s megastars to preserve hope of raising the trophy at Rio’s Maracanã next weekend.

The little maestro did not score in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Belgium on Saturday at Estadio Nacional. Nor did he assist on Gonzalo Higuain’s early goal. What he did was perform to sublime heights during a hypnotic first half, escorting La Albiceleste to the semifinals for the first time since 1990 and further buttressing his reputation as one of the sport’s all-time greats.

“He played a wonderful match because it is not only [about] scoring goals,” Argentina Coach Alejandro Sabella said. “Every move he makes is a sign of hope. It endangers the opponent. What he does beyond scoring goals, the influence he has on the pitch, is decisive.”

In pursuit of its first crown since Diego Maradona’s 1986 squad, Argentina will face the Netherlands in Wednesday's semifinal in Sao Paulo.

"Argentina has gone a long time without doing this,” Messi said, “and it was us who crossed the frontier."

Messi, 27, pulled his sluggish team through the first four matches, scoring four times and setting up the winning goal in the round of 16. He did not have to carry as much of the burden Saturday, and for long spells of the second half when Belgium was pressing for the equalizer, he was not involved. He also failed to convert a breakaway in the waning moments.

But over the first 45 minutes, his exquisite touch and ball control, his vision and balance mesmerized and entertained.

The philosophical Sabella said Messi provides “water in the desert” — contributions at critical times.

Belgium Coach Marc Wilmots called Messi “an extraordinary player” but complained of star treatment.

“The referee is never against him,” Wilmots said. “I don’t want to be a crybaby, but every time there is a little foul, it’s always in favor of Argentina.”

At one point in the first half, as Messi returned up field after failing to get a call in his favor, Wilmots appeared to exchange words with the player.

Wilmots was not impressed with Argentina in general.

“It’s just an ordinary team,” he scoffed.

Argentina was rather ordinary up to this stage but superior in the first half against Belgium, which had ousted the United States in the round of 16 on Tuesday.

Messi’s first true touch, in the third minute, was a preview of what was to come: a long diagonal ball out of midfield that met Ezequiel Lavezzi clear on the left for a cross that the Belgians cleaned up.

The goal came in the eighth minute. After a Belgian giveaway, Messi sustained possession, turning and shielding the ball from two challengers while distracting a third.

He pushed the ball wide to Angel Di Maria, who intended to supply overlapping right back Pablo Zabaleta. The pass, however, caromed off Jan Vertonghen and bounded toward Higuain.

Two yards inside the penalty area, Higuain could have settled it. Instead, he swiveled and struck a one-timer toward the left corner with pace and placement. Thibaut Courtois did not have a prayer.

Argentina had not only seized the lead, it had gotten Higuain, a nine-goal scorer in 11 qualifiers, involved after four scoreless performances in Brazil.

“I was calm, and it finally came to me,” he said. “I was working on it and felt the confidence from the coaches and my teammates. A striker wants a goal, and what is more beautiful than doing it today?”

The question when Messi touched the ball was: What would he do next? He spun a back-heel pass into the box and threaded a 30-yard pass on the ground through midfield that, with precise weight, rolled past the last defender and met Di Maria in stride for an unfulfilled opportunity.

Di Maria, a Real Madrid midfielder who faces Barcelona’s Messi regularly in Spain’s La Liga, left the match in the 33rd minute with a right thigh injury. He will undergo tests Sunday, Sabella said.

Early in the second half, Higuain made like Messi, embarking on a solo dash and ticking the ball between Belgian captain Vincent Kompany’s legs before lashing a clear shot off the crossbar.

From all appearances, this was Argentina’s day. But with a narrow margin and Belgium’s capacity for an uprising — it scored late goals in each of its first four matches — the outcome remained in the balance. Wilmots brought on Romelu Lukaku, the mighty forward who keyed the extra-time spark against the Americans.

The tenor changed. Belgium began to cause trouble, building through midfield and firing long balls into the box. From 10 yards, Marouane Fellaini headed Vertonghen’s cross over the bar, Lukaku’s deep cross was cleared and Fellaini missed the mark.

Before leaving the field, Argentina’s players led thousands of blue-clad compatriots in towel- and jersey-waving celebration. Messi pumped his arms and hugged Sabella. Song echoed through the emptying arena.

They had waited a long time for this.

“It’s a matter of great joy, but we still have two matches to go,” Sabella said. “So we can have the dream that brought us here from the very first day.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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