at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Argentina thanked their lucky stars and the “post of God” for scraping into the World Cup quarter-finals and began preparing on Wednesday for a weekend clash with Belgium.
The Argentine team flew straight back to their camp in Belo Horizonte after beating Switzerland on Tuesday with a goal by Angel Di Maria two minutes from the end of extra time.
In a heart-stopping end after a pedestrian Argentine performance, the Swiss almost equalised in the dying moments when substitute Blerim Dzemaili’s header struck the post.
“The post of God,” some media immediately dubbed it, in reference to former Argentine great Diego Maradona’s famous handball goal against England at the 1986 World Cup.
“Luck decided to wrap itself round a team that alone was not up to the task,” wrote one relieved columnist Cristian Grosso in Argentina’s La Nacion newspaper.
Another newspaper, Clarin, baptised Di Maria the nation’s new “guardian angel” in a play on his first name.
Reflecting the extraordinary national tension and desperation for a third World Cup, one radio narrator was reduced to tears on air when Argentina scored.
In the dressing room afterwards, the players danced and sang fans’ songs as if they had won the trophy.
Their captain Lionel Messi recognised they had been lucky against a Swiss team many expected to roll over in the face of Argentina’s big names and intimidating three-pronged attack.
“I’m not sure if this was deserved or not. The important thing is that we’re through,” acknowledged Messi.
“Luck is on our side.”
MESSI MISSING AGUERO
Belgium, who also needed extra time to beat United States 2-1, will have taken careful note of Argentina’s inability to convert possession into goals and nervousness at the back.
They meet on Saturday in Brasilia.
While the Belgians will have been buoyed by Romelu Lukaku finally getting on the scoresheet, Argentina will, it seems, again miss injured striker Sergio Aguero for that match.
The Argentines were due to give an update on Aguero after training at their camp in Belo Horizonte on Wednesday afternoon.
Messi and Aguero love playing together, and the absence of their spark and intuition could be seen against the Swiss.
Coach Alejandro Sabella, however, was defensive of his charges, in a tournament where few of the favourites have been able to steam-roller supposedly weaker opposition.
“I’m normally a self-critical person. Sometimes I prefer to do that in front of the team, sometimes in front of you, but I believe the team played well,” he told reporters.
“I have to congratulate the players, I have no criticism of them or of myself, although there are always things to improve.”
Argentina are under extra pressure to succeed in this World Cup given the presence of tens of thousands of their fans, who have crossed the border into Brazil.
Furthermore, winning on Brazilian soil would be extra-sweet for Argentines given their long-running rivalry in the region. Many fans still chant songs about Argentina’s victory over Brazil at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Without Aguero, Sabella will be relying on the less-renowned Ezequiel Lavezzi or Rodrigo Palacio against Belgium. Lavezzi started on Tuesday, with Palacio later replacing him.
“I want to point out that the play for the goal came from Palacio,” a delighted Sabella said.
“Our dream is work from game to game. Now our aim is to reach the semi-finals. We can’t make the mistake of trying to take two steps at once. As you’ve seen in this World Cup, strong teams like Spain, Italy, Uruguay, England and Portugal are out.” – Reuters