Eraldo Peres / AP
Saturday, July 5, 2014 | 5:47 p.m.
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 said.
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 four-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, and yet manage just four attempts on target through the 90 minutes.
That's exactly what Sabella's tactics are designed to do.
"It is not only scoring goals," Sabella said.