BRASILIA, Brazil – Lionel Messi and Argentina took a step closer to World Cup glory on Saturday, outlasting Belgium 1-0 in a tough quarterfinal at the Estadio Nacional.
Gonzalo Higuain scored the only goal with a fierce strike eight minutes in, but it was Messi who ran the show to take his team to within two victories of the biggest prize in soccer.
There may never have been a player more dangerous with the ball at his feet than the 27-year-old and his devilish footwork was on display once more against a Belgian side that had eliminated the United States four days earlier.
That trickery of movement helped set up the only goal, as Messi’s angled run saw the ball moved to Angel Di Maria, whose cross deflected into Higuain’s path. Higuain responded in a heartbeat, swiveling on the spot and firing a right-footed shot past Thibaut Courtois to settle the South American side’s nerves.
"After 24 years we are finally again among the best four teams in the world," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said. "We were the very idea of what a team should be – the idea of giving and not receiving, giving everything to your colleague.
"We want more. We have lived up to the minimum objective, but we do not stop here."
There is a growing Argentine fan presence in Brazil that is justifiably referred as an invasion. It is loud and boisterous and greatly entertaining. More than anything, it possesses a growing expectation of having something special to celebrate in eight days’ time.
The margin could have been greater here. Higuain marked a sparkling performance with a run that nearly provided a contender for goal of the tournament, sprinting 60 yards through the defense before grazing the crossbar with his effort.
But Belgium was tough and resilient and showed some enterprise on the break. Marouane Fellaini had an unmarked header midway through the second half but could only send it over the bar.
"We are incredibly sorry that we lost, but I was very proud of the boys," Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said. "They have given everything. They were the youngest team in the last eight.
"There were a couple of people on my staff who were crying in the locker room. They are so passionate."
Messi’s only blemish was a late missed chance to snatch Argentina’s second. Clear on goal, he allowed Courtois to advance quickly and parry his shot.
That would have iced it but it didn’t matter. This was a clinical victory from a clinical team, one with not only the best player in the tournament, but a genuine chance to win it.
More World Cup coverage on Yahoo Sports: