With two countries already making it to the semi-finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the host nation Brazil and Germany, who had reached at least the semi-finals in the last four World Cups, today’s matches would see the remaining four quarter finalists face off for a place in the last four. The Netherlands had up to this point been in brilliant form as they topped their group without dropping a point, with a 5-1 demolition of defending champions Spain being a particular highlight. Standing in between them and a place in the semi-finals were Costa Rica, who had defied all expectation by reaching their first World Cup quarter-final and topping a group featuring England, Italy and Uruguay. In the other match Argentina, who had up to this stage been scraping through matches, played Belgium, who many had considered the dark horses coming into the tournament due to the quality players in the team.
Netherlands 0-0 Costa Rica (Netherlands won 4-3 on penalties)
Substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul was the star performer of the match after saving two penalties in a tense shootout that brought Costa Rica’s brilliant run to an end. Despite having the lion’s share of opportunities against their lower ranked opponents, it took more than 20 minutes for them to find an opening; Robin Van Persie’s low drive was parried away by the Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas before Wesley Sneijder’s follow-up was tame and straight at the keeper. The only other real chance of the half again fell to Sneijder, but Navas was equal to his dipping free-kick with an acrobatic save to his right hand side.
Costa Rica came out after the interval with a more offensive frame of mind and they began to come into the match a bit more, particularly from set pieces. Aston Villa defender Ron Vlaar did well to pressurise Giancarlo Gonzalez into heading a dangerous Christian Bolanos free kick over the bar from close range. But set pieces from the Netherlands were also creating chances; Sneijder’s brilliant curling free-kick smashed off the post with Navas beaten, before the latter did well to get down low to palm away Van Persie’s shot, as both teams looked to open the scoring. Van Persie was then guilty of missing a sitter from a Sneijder cross when he failed to make proper contact with the ball when it was easier to hit the target. There was a moment of madness for the Netherlands just after when both Stefan de Vrij and Dirk Kuyt failed to make contact with a brilliant ball across the six yard area by Daley Blind, before Yeltsin Tejeda made a miraculous block to prevent a certain goal from Van Persie’s shot as the ball was deflected onto the crossbar and away. With the match still goalless, the match went into extra-time for either team to find a winner.
Extra-time saw a tiring Costa Rica continue to try and find the winning goal against their higher ranked opponents, and had a penalty shout turned down by the referee when Vlaar appeared to nudge Marcos Urena to the ground. Then Urena sprinted at and found a hole in the Dutch defence but keeper Jasper Cillessen was there to save the shot and keep his country in the World Cup. The Netherlands had one final chance to not take the game into a penalty shootout but a curling shot from Wesley Sneijder, who had been excellent all game, beat Navas but once again crashed off the frame of the goal. It was at this point that Louis van Gaal made an unusual substitution by bringing off Cillessen and replacing him with Newcastle United’s Tim Krul, with the manager hoping that the added height of the keeper could be a factor in the shootout. The decision turned out to be a magnificent one, as the Netherlands converted their first four penalties whilst Krul made great saves from Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana to put them through. The Netherlands therefore were still on course for their first World Cup win by ending the fairy tale run of Costa Rica, who will have to still be delighted with reaching their first ever World Cup quarter-finals.
Argentina 1-0 Belgium
An early Gonzalo Higuain goal was the difference between these two sides as Argentina progressed to their first World Cup semi-final since 1990. The goal came after just seven minutes when Belgium captain Vincent Kompany gave the ball away to Lionel Messi and he swept the ball to Angel Di Maria. His pass was deflected into the path of Higuain who made no mistake and confidently dispatched the ball past Thibaut Courtois in the Belgium goal to put them ahead early on. Belgium meanwhile were looking a bit tired and unimaginative, with Kevin de Bruyne’s range-effort that stung the fingertips of Argentina keeper Sergio Romero being their best opportunity of the first half. Kevin Mirallas also nearly put his side level but his diving header from Jan Vertonghen’s cross was powerful but just wide of the post. At the other end, Lionel Messi had a great chance to double Argentina’s lead but his free-kick from just outside the penalty area was always rising and flew just over the bar.
Argentina’s more creative play was giving them more chances to put the game to bed in the second half but couldn’t get that crucial second goal they craved. Higuain could have scored his second goal with a shot near the byline that took a wicked deflection off Daniel Van Buyten but it went just wide with Courtois scrambling to get there. The same player then broke away and ran from inside his own half before dribbling through the legs of Kompany and then had a pop from the edge of the area but, with Courtois beaten, it clipped the crossbar and went over for a goal kick. The most dangerous player for Belgium in the second half was Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini, and Belgium started to play long balls in order to get the tall midfielder in the game more. He flashed a header from a cross just over the bar as Belgium tried everything to find an equaliser, but their lack of creativity and sloppy passing remained their undoing. Messi had one final chance to secure the win when Belgium pushed all men upfield and gave the ball away to him but with just the keeper between him and the goal, Courtois made a good save with his legs. Belgium continued to push for the equaliser but Axel Witsel fired the last real chance of the game over the bar as Argentina held on for the win and progression to the semi-finals where they will play Netherlands, whilst still not being wholly impressive in a match that only had 3 shots on target between both sides.
Return of the King: Lionel Messi was back on form in this match, making several good runs that gave Belgium problems.