Even when shut down for an extended period of time, Diego Maradona is always just one brilliant move away from scoring or setting up a goal. He proved that twice today, and that means Argentina is headed for the World Cup final.
Virtually duplicating his effort against England three days earlier, the Argentine captain scored two eye-catching goals within 11 minutes of the second half to give his team a 2-0 semifinal victory over Belgium.
Argentina, the 1978 champion, will go into Sunday's final against West Germany, a 2-0 winner over France today, in this 13th edition of the Cup.
Maradona, a 5-foot-5, 152-pound midfielder, has yet to play a bad match here. He has scored or assisted on nine of his team's 11 goals. After scoring just one goal in the first four matches, he has four in the past two.
"I believe if you put Maradona on my team, Belgium would be playing in the finals," Belgium Coach Guy Thys said. "During the first half, Maradona was well-controlled because he was double-marked at all times. I just don't think any one player can ever mark him."
Against England Sunday, Maradona broke open a scoreless game with two goals within a four-minute span of the second half. The same thing happened today in front of 110,420 fans at Azteca Stadium -- the midfield master was frustrated during a scoreless first half, but ended the suspense with his second-half brilliance.
"Their defense did not bother me too much in the first half. It was simply a case of not scoring," Maradona said. "In the second half, we found holes and we scored . . . I don't know why, but I'm more tired today than any other match. It was comfortable, not hot, but perhaps it is the excitement that fatigues me."
Actually, it was Maradona who wore out the Belgians.
Wherever Maradona roamed with the ball, a couple of Belgian bodyguards followed, players who did not necessarily have Maradona's best interests at heart.
In the first 45 minutes, Belgium took a let's-see-if-we-can-get-to-halftime-scoreless attitude. Almost all the Belgian players crowded around the penalty area. Every once in a while, the Belgians mounted a counterattack to keep Argentina's defenders honest.
Belgium's plan -- lay back as many men as possible on defense and smother Maradona with attention -- finally failed because the Belgians were not apparently willing to mount a serious attack and because Maradona is too good. Still, Belgium's strategy held up through halftime, and might have succeeded even longer if the team had been allowed to erect barriers in front of its goal.
Maradona ended the tie in the seventh minute of the second half. As he crossed into the penalty area to the right, he took a fine pass from Jorge Burruchaga, slipped by Stephane Demol and one other defender and put a right-footed shot into the left corner of the net.
In the 18th minute of the second half, he made it 2-0 in even more spectacular fashion. Gaining possession just beyond the penalty area, he badly beat defenders Eric Gerets and Georges Grun with a sharp dribble and scored on a 10-yard, left-footed shot past helpless goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff.
That effort effectively ended any upset hopes of the Belgians, who were appearing in their first World Cup semifinal.
"When I named Maradona as captain," said Argentina Coach Carlos Bilardo, "the only thing I asked of him was 30 days. He was in Italy playing for Napoli and I wanted him to give us at least 30 days before the World Cup to be in Argentina for preparation. He has done everything for us, and he never has asked for even one hour of leave.
"What Maradona is doing at this time shows he's a super player . . . the best in the world. He has to be the best in the world because everything is going for him. He is the right age, has the right physical condition and the right technique."
Bilardo said of West Germany, "I have always liked Germany, and we know them well. They have always had problems, but they always strike hard. It is a side that has very good teamwork."
If Argentina had a second Maradona, the results of all its matches might be a foregone conclusion. Half a dozen times today, Maradona made marvelous passes to set up teammates, but lacking Maradona's skills, they were unable to finish the plays.
As has happened with many other opponents, Belgium appeared to be so intimidated by Maradona that it never got into its offensive flow.
Belgium did not take a shot on goal until the 20th minute of the second half and did not have a corner kick in the first half. Argentine goalkeeper Nery Pumpido needed to make only three saves in the game.
It is easy to overlook Argentina's mistake-free defense -- it has yielded only three goals in six Cup matches -- but that's because Maradona sets the rhythm for his team and the opponent with his unmatched skills.
Pfaff, who nearly took a punch at Argentina's Oscar Ruggeri out of frustration when the two collided late in the match, was as mesmerized by Maradona as anyone. The 32-year-old goalkeeper was in no mood to speak afterward, but after waving off reporters, he did say:
"I like to think I am the best goalkeeper in the world. But if I played every game against Maradona, I don't know if I would still even be a goalkeeper."