Argentina have confirmed their status as one of the tournament’s favorites by beating Belgium to reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time 1990, where they will face the Netherlands – in a rendition of the 1978 final. It wasn’t a particularly memorable or entertaining match, but Argentina did just enough to pull through, led as always by the tournament’s biggest star in Lionel Messi. Belgium, on the other hand, enjoyed their best World Cup campaign since 1986 – when Maradona and his Argentina side put an end to their hopes in the semifinals – but they came up just a bit short in this match, especially on the offensive end of the pitch.

Here are a few facts/a few things we learnt from this match:

There has been a noticeable change in approach from the group stages to the knockout stages

During the group stages, this World Cup was praised for the excellent attacking football and myriad of goals on display, but once the knockout stages started things changed dramatically. The managers know that any mistake can be costly at this stage and they are acting accordingly; this match was a very good example of this, after going up an early goal Argentina didn’t really press on too much to get a second, they were mostly content to see off the match and book their place in the semifinals. Belgium didn’t exactly pull out all the stops in chase of an equalizer either, in fact they left a sense that they might not have been ambitious enough until it was too late.

While the knockout stages haven’t exactly featured a lot of free flowing football, they haven’t been lacking in drama, in fact the other match of the second day of the quarterfinals between the Netherlands and Costa Rica was drama personified. This particular match was the exception though, it never really felt like Argentina were in danger after going one up. Despite all the talent in the Belgium side, they really struggled to connect in the final third and be threatening.

A similar type of match can be expected in Argentina’s semifinal match against the Dutch; Van Gaal will not allow his team to give Messi any space to operate and Argentina, while they are likely to take the initiative, will be wary of the threat represented by the Dutch quick counterattacks. As we go deeper into the tournament, it becomes less about technical brilliance and more about sharp tactics and the ability to stay focused and not commit any costly errors.

Lionel Messi pulls the strings for Argentina

Di Maria is down, but Messi is still going strong

Di Maria is down, but Messi is still going strong

One of the biggest questions prior to the World Cup was whether Lionel Messi could deliver a World Cup performance worthy of his talent and some of his club performances. The question has been answered; Argentina have been far from impressive this tournament, but Messi has led them to the semifinals – in the group stages it was his goalscoring ability that did it, against Switzerland and Belgium it was his playmaking skills that created the gaps necessary for his teammates Di Maria and Higuain to score. People in Argentina will be hoping he can repeat Maradona’s heroics and lead Argentina to the World Cup title, but for now he has done very well to lead the Argentines to their first World Cup semifinal post-Maradona.

The semifinals and possibly final will require even more of Messi, not only because the opponents will be stronger on paper, but because of Aguero’s questionable fitness and Di Maria’s absence, he will have very little help in the creation department in the final third. Argentina are not as cohesive or strong as a team as the Netherlands, Germany or Brazil, they will need an inspired Messi to fulfill their World Cup dream, it will be up to him to find a way past the Dutch organization on Wednesday.

Belgium are not quite there yet, but they’re on the rise

Belgium were seen as potential dark horses to win the title by some, but while it’s unquestionable this is a very talented generation it’s still a raw and unexperienced one; they did reach the quarterfinals winning all their matches, but against a less than stellar Argentina they came up short, mostly due to their lack of experience at this level. They had no idea how to best approach the match after seeing themselves down 1-0 in 8 minutes and their final ball was consistently disastrous.

It wasn’t so much that they lost, but rather that they never threatened to turn the tide at any point. With that said, Courtois is 22, Hazard and De Bruyne are 23,  Januzaj is 19, Lukaku is 21 and this is a very young Belgium side, give them 4 more years to mature and we might see  a team capable of contending for the title in Russia 2018, when all those players will likely be in their prime. They might have come up short this time, but Belgium have every reason to be optimistic for the future with their core of young, talented players in every area of the pitch. They should be stronger already come the Euro 2016.