There was once an idea of an exciting, excellent, effervescent Belgium. The ultimate consensus dark horse, as oxymoronic as that may be. Yet as it so often happens, the reality never lived up to the fantasy. Which is not always a problem but unfortunately for Belgium, reality didn't even come close this time.
"Why haven't we seen the Belgium we were expecting?" Because that team is imaginary?— Graham MacAree (@MacAree) June 22, 2014
The signs had been there all World Cup long. Uninspired performances in a weak Group H were saved by the occasional individual brilliance from Eden Hazard or a late-game physical mismatch created by Marouane Fellaini. The Round of 16 performance was better, though the breakthrough didn't come until the most unfair substitution of all time had a fresh Romelu Lukaku running full steam at the poor, tired souls in the USA defense.
Not that Argentina had been any more impressive up to this point, but they've had the luxury of relying on Lionel Messi. Messi-dependence is a very real and very serious condition, but it's a condition best left untreated if you're Alejandro Sabella (despite public claims to the contrary). It's what has allowed them to win five matches from five, all by a single goal after all. And with Belgium's midfield at sixes and sevens most of the game (but especially the first half) in trying to deal with the little genius, it's what has led them back to a World Cup semifinal for the first since 1990.
Argentina's supporting cast in attack -- the irrepressible* and excellent Angel Di Maria, the goal-scorer Gonzalo Higuain, and the hard-working Ezequiel Lavezzi -- are all stars in their own rights, but when playing for Argentina they play for Messi. It's a lesson in simple game-planning, but it's one that Belgium could very much learn from.
* well, until his thigh injury forced him off early; not coincidentally Belgium had a bit of an easier time after that
Unlike Sabella, Marc Wilmots seemed to just send his players out there and basically hope for the best. There was no cohesion, no plan, no purpose on display. Eden Hazard got marked out of the game and then was withdrawn for Nacer Chadli as Belgium tried to press for an equalizer. (Huh?) First Divock Origi then Romelu Lukaku were isolated and uninvolved and, worst of all, subbed for each other so than Daniel Van Buyten could masquerade as a striker instead. (Now you're just trolling, right, Wilmots?) Kevin De Bruyne wasn't just on a different page, but probably an entirely different book than everybody else. Vincent Kompany launched himself into rash tackles and David Luiz-esque wonderings. Toby Alderweireld was hilariously bad, as was Marouane Fellaini, midfielder. Marouane Fellaini, second striker, wasn't much better either. I mean the list just goes on and on. Dries Mertens tried a free kick.
The only reason Belgium only lost by one was Thibaut Courtois. And the crossbar, which denied Higuain his second. His first was a world class affair however, a turn and volley that he probably doesn't hit as sweetly 9 times out of 10. The outrageous skill, which came via a deflected pass already, caught Courtois off-guard and even though the shot looked within reach of a dive, the big man could only stare at it fizzing by and into the far corner. Courtois did put a huge smile on my face with his save on Lionel Messi in the dying moments of the game though.
And with that, Belgium are out. On the face of it, being in the last 8 is probably a good achievement for this collection of young talent. But it could've been so much more...