|Defense stands up, Argentina into World Cup semis|
|Saturday, July 05, 2014 8:00 PM|
BRASILIA, Brazil — This time for Argentina, it was less about Lionel Messi and more about the men behind him.
Argentina made the semifinals of the World Cup for the first time in 24 years on Saturday as stubborn defending and clever tactics overcame Belgium in a tight 1-0 victory.
Before the quarterfinals, Messi's magic had bailed out the team as it labored unimpressively through the group stage and past Switzerland in the second round, relying on four goals and a couple of assists from its playmaking superstar.
But coach Alejandro Sabella's strategy appeared to work at Brasilia's Estadio Nacional as Argentina scored early and then out-maneuvered a Belgium team that was left completely frustrated.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots criticized Argentina as "an ordinary team" that relied on a couple of attacking players and mostly defense, built on the back four and combative midfielders Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano.
It was good enough to beat Belgium, though, and might be the key to Argentina overcoming more impressive teams in the last four of the World Cup as the South Americans go in search of a third title but first since 1986.
"The players today played a wonderful match. I would say that it was excellent," Sabella said, "(From) the tactical point of view."
Despite having a team that includes Messi, probably the most exciting attacking player in the game, Sabella is a firm believer in the importance of closing down other teams and limiting their opportunities. He calls it "occupying the spaces" and used his favorite catchphrase 10 times in an answer Friday when explaining tactics to a reporter.
"It was a team that was very well balanced today. ... Sometimes forward, sometimes to the back," he added.
And even Messi has a defensive role in Sabella's game plan.
Argentina's No. 10 tracked back to help out when his team didn't have the ball against Belgium, even resorting to a foul to halt a late Belgian counterattack. Not the kind of thing you would normally expect from Barcelona's 4-time world player of the year.
"They had a great defense because they knew how to close down the space we were looking for," Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said as he watched his team push forward for most of the second half, yet manage just four attempts on target through the 90 minutes.
That's exactly what Sabella's tactics are designed to do.
Netherlands beats Costa Rica in penalty shootout
SALVADOR, Brazil — Tim Krul came on as a substitute in the final minute of extra time and then saved two penalties in a 4-3 shootout victory over Costa Rica on Saturday, giving the Netherlands a spot in the World Cup semifinals.
The Newcastle goalkeeper saved spot kicks from Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana after the match had finished 0-0.
The Dutch team will next face Argentina in the semifinals on Wednesday in Sao Paulo.
In another stroke of tactical genius at this year's World Cup, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal pulled Jasper Cillessen moments after the Ajax goalkeeper had kept his team in the match by saving a shot from Marcos Urena in extra time.
Krul looked super confident during the shootout, saving the second and fifth penalties.
When Krul stopped Ruiz's penalty, Cillessen, watching from the sideline, punched the air in celebration.
Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas had kept his team in the match with a string of saves in the first half and again in extra time. When Wesley Sneijder twice beat him late in regulation and again in the second half of extra time, the woodwork made the stop.
Sneijder hit the post with a free kick in the 80th minute and sent a curling shot over Navas and off the crossbar before the penalty shootout.
At the end, however, Navas could not stop any of the four Dutch penalties as Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt all scored.
Neymar: World Cup dream still alive
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — Brazil star Neymar says his World Cup may be over because of a fractured vertebra but his World Cup dream of celebrating the title with his teammates at the Maracana Stadium next Sunday is still alive.
In a video released by the Brazilian football confederation on Saturday, Neymar thanked fans and everyone else for the support in this "very difficult moment."
"I don't have words to describe what has been going through my head and my heart," said Neymar, trying to stay upbeat but still sporting a subdued look on his face. "I just want to say that I will be back as soon as possible. When you least expect I'll be back."
Wearing a black T-shirt and a black hat turned backward, he spoke in a low tone of voice, his eyes still heavy.
"My dream is not over yet," he said. "It was interrupted by one move but it will continue and I'm certain that my teammates will do whatever possible so I can fulfill my dream of being a champion. I won't be able to fulfill the dream of playing in a World Cup final but I'm sure they will win this one, they will become champions, and I will be there with them, and all of Brazil will be celebrating together."
It was the first time Neymar had spoken publicly since fracturing a vertebra late in Brazil's 2-1 win over Colombia in the quarterfinals on Friday.
The video was made just before the striker was airlifted from Brazil's training camp in a medical helicopter to be treated at home for the back injury that ruled him out of the last two games of the World Cup.
Brazil doctor Jose Luiz Runco guaranteed the injury will not have long-term effects on Neymar's career and added the player could even travel to Belo Horizonte to watch the semifinal against Germany on Tuesday if he is not feeling a lot of pain.