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Argentina bobbles into World Cup semifinals

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Saturday, in Brasilia, Brazil, Gonzalo Higuain found a ricocheted ball bobbling in front of him inside the Belgian box, without opposing interference, fifteen yards from where goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois crouched, and the striker struck the ball well, into the back of the net, securing Argentina’s semifinals birth in the World Cup at the seventh minute mark of their quarterfinals match.

That one gifted early goal, and two earned sure-fire scoring opportunities, were the sum total production the Argentines managed all game long, but it was all they needed. The other two were a fantastic run by Higuain that culminated on a shot off the crossbar from close in when Courtois was already beaten, and the other was a run by Lionel Messi which resulted in a great one-on-one Courtois save.

The rest of the match was unremarkable except for three things. First, was the subtle refereeing which managed to again favor the contender over the newcomer in myriad ways that broke the Belgian’s rhythm and bolstered the Argentine’s attacking or defending priority of the moment.

Second, was the forgiving of Messi his every sin—in this game he committed two clear counterattack-stopping yellow-card fouls that drew nary a second glance from Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli. Truth be told Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, and Thomas Muller, have also been forgiven often this cup.

Third, was the Argentine team’s good fortune. Yes, they have had more than their share, but a last gasp Messi intervention cannot fairly be considered luck, he is simply that good, and was that good against every team he beat with his singular magic. Today Messi was not on so the team needed some real, pure luck.

In every World Cup the teams that make the deepest runs need to have some good fortune at a critical point—such as Thiago Silva’s knee-thigh goal, or Mats Hummels remarkable backward power header, or in today’s case, the fortuitous happenstance that it was Higuain, of all people, who should receive such a goal ball gift off a ricochet.

Not only was that gift a close-in ball, not only was it poised in perfect position for a right footer as opposed to say, the other two closest strikers, lefties Messi and Angel di Maria, but the very-early-in-the-critical-match bobble placed the ball in front of one of the world’s great strikers as opposed to any of the other trailing midfielders. That was remarkable good fortune.

Argentine daily La Prensa had a front page photo and article with a headline that said “Argentina among the world’s four best in world after 24 years.” Higuain was quoted as saying: “The goal arrived at the most important moment, I am speechless.”

In the post-game conference Argentine coach, Alejandro Sabella said “We played as a team should play, had our best game of the cup so far, and are very happy but going after more. We met our minimum objective, now we will see what comes next.”

Belgium reached a respectable depth in this cup. They have a young team with immense potential and most will be around for the next couple of cups. They had their moments, but mostly showed their inexperience in many ways today. They were beaten by a team with oodles of expertise. But the Red Devil's time will come and the next cup is on more familiar European territory.

Argentina moves on, having done the bare minimum to win. They have been given the easiest route to the finals, and have needed it. But, if the Netherlands beat Costa Rica, as expected, the South Americans will have their first true test. If they do not happen to have a good game then, as they did not have their last two matches, the Dutch will beat Argentina. If the albicelestes do get it together for the next match, and meet and beat Holland, they will probably meet either an inspired Brazil or a world-beater Germany next. If Messi’s troops beat either team in the final, they will have a case to argue, good fortune or not, and Messi will finally get his Maradona monkey off his back.

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