BRASILIA, Brazil — For once Lionel Messi didn’t carry Argentina on his shoulders.
He didn’t have to.
Gonzalo Higuain ended a four-game scoreless streak with an early winner as Argentina beat Belgium 1-0 and reached a World Cup semifinal match for the first time since 1990.
“Since the first game of this World Cup I said I was calm, that the goals would come. It came and at an important moment,” Higuain said. “It’s been so many years since we made it to the semifinals. Now we did.”
Higuain came into the World Cup still recovering from an ankle injury that had sidelined him since early May. The 26-year-old Napoli striker looked out-of-form in the group stage and wasn’t giving Argentina the edge it needed in the penalty area.
That changed in the eighth minute of the game in Brasilia, as he picked up a deflected pass from Angel Di Maria just inside the area and beat goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with a half-volley toward the far post.
“Higuain has the class to put the ball where he wants it. There is nothing we could do about it,” Courtois said.
A poor consolation for the Belgium goalkeeper was that he once again kept Messi from scoring, as he had done in seven straight matches at club level.
The Argentina captain missed a chance to get his fifth goal of the tournament when he failed to beat Courtois in stoppage time.
Argentina’s next opponent will be the winner of the last quarterfinal between the Netherlands and Costa Rica, who were playing later Saturday in Salvador.
Buoyed by the melodic chants of its fans, Argentina protected its lead thanks to a near-flawless defensive line, bolstered by strong performances from central midfielders Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.
Belgium lacked the imagination to find a way into the final third of the pitch, and created few clear chances apart from a pair of headers by Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini.
Belgium’s most creative player, Eden Hazard, had little impact on the game beyond receiving a yellow card for a studs-first challenge on Lucas Biglia. Hazard cut a disconsolate figure as he was substituted by Nacer Chadli in the 75th.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots didn’t think that his team fell to a stronger opponent, calling Argentina “just an ordinary team.”
“If we had equalized in the last few minutes, they are dead, they are finished,” Wilmots said.
Long after the game, thousands of Argentine fans flocked to one section of the Estadio Nacional to celebrate the country’s best World Cup performance since it lost the 1990 final to West Germany.
“They played an excellent match,” Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said of his team. “After 24 years, we can be among the four best teams in the world. At least we lived up to the minimum objective.”
Argentina has won every match in Brazil by a single goal. In previous games, it scraped by thanks to individual moments of magic by Messi. But against Belgium, Argentina looked in control even after losing Di Maria — the team’s most influential player in Brazil aside from Messi — to a right thigh injury in the 33rd minute.
Sabella said the Real Madrid midfielder will have medical tests on Sunday to discover the extent of the injury.
It was Di Maria who set up Higuain’s goal as he picked up a pass from Messi and cut in from the right. He tried to find fullback Pablo Zabaleta, but the ball bounced off Jan Vertonghen into Higuain’s path.
Startled by the early goal, the Red Devils didn’t create any heat in Argentina’s penalty area until the 42nd minute when Mirallas headed Vertonghen’s cross just wide of Sergio Romero’s right post.
Fifteen minutes after the break, Vertonghen once again sent in a precise cross from the left flank but Fellani headed it over the crossbar.
Higuain came close to making it 2-0 in the second half when he easily ran past Vincent Kompany and smashed a shot into the crossbar. He worked relentlessly for Argentina before being substituted in the 81st by Fernando Gago.
“We still have two matches to go so we can have the dream, the dream that brought us here from the very first day,” Higuain said.