At the end of each day of action at the 2014 World Cup, our writers weigh in on what we learned from each match.
Tim Howard. Just, Tim Howard: In what was most likely his final appearance for the United States, Tim Howard went out a champion. He was truly heroic Tuesday, saving an amazing 16 shots from Belgium. SIXTEEN. According to ESPN, that's the most stops in a World Cup game in the last 50 years. So tip your cap, raise a glass, or do whatever you feel appropriate to salute Howard. He was absolutely magnificent.
US attack was a struggle, defense a plus: We knew it going in, but the US struggled for the most part with possession and putting pressure on the Belgium defense. Of course, that has been the case with everyone against Belgium, but the Americans boasted a better front than those sides. Obviously the absence of Jozy Altidore is a huge hit, but the US couldn't get consistent chances to keep pace with a Belgian side that was teeing off on Howard.
The flip side of that coin is the play of the defense. The back four have struggled throughout the tournament, but they, with Howard, kept Belgium at bay for 93 minutes. That's pretty impressive.
Belgium sticks to the script: Defend, defend, defend, and score late. That has been Belgium's way this World Cup, and it was no different Tuesday against the United States. Belgium, for the most part, controlled possession and created a ton of chances, but couldn't scratch a goal across until extra time. The strategy is sound, given that their defense has been mostly impenetrable. But the Belgians have only been forced to play from behind once this World Cup, and that was in their opening match against Algeria. Things may be a bit different if they're the ones trying to play catch-up.
Matchup with Argentina: That time, mentioned above, when the Belgians have to play from behind, may come in their quarterfinal match against Lionel Messi and Argentina. But probably not. Argentina hasn't been exactly dynamic, and it, too, has show a tendency to jump into the scoring column late. If Argentina goes that route again, they may be playing right into Belgium's hands. But the Argentinian side will be the best squad Belgium has faced in the tournament. And Messi is, at the very, very least, something of a difference maker.
Argentina aren't just having issues in their defense. The conventional wisdom entering the World Cup was that 1) the Albiceleste might have problems in defense, but would make up for it with a lethal attack because 2) Lionel Messi wasn't going to have to do it alone. He had Angel Di Maria supporting him and both Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero ahead of him. With that quartet of offensive players, who'd need a defense?
It turns out that Argentina does. Aguero's out hurt. Before his goal, Di Maria spent 117 minutes misplaying passes and shooting errantly. And Higuain was all but invisible. Meaning that the second half of that conventional wisdom is off -- Messi is playing all but 1-on-11. And the bad news for Argentina is that given Switzerland's gilt-edged chances in the dying moments once they actually tried to attack, the defensive woes on display vs. Nigeria haven't been solved.
Staggeringly, Argentina haven't progressed past the quarterfinals of any World Cup since 1990. And purely on the evidence of Tuesday's performance, they're not about to break that streak in 2014.
Then again: they have Messi. So their defense is suspect. Their offense, other than Messi, is out of form. It might not matter. Many of the other teams left in this World Cup would have beaten Argentina Tuesday ... but they played Switzerland. They'd be underdogs to maybe five other of the other quarterfinalists ... but they're going to face either Belgium or the United States.
Messi has proven four times over in this Cup he can beat less-than-elite competition singlehandedly. And unless uber-talented Belgium plays like a far more coherent side than they have thus far, Argentina will fortunately play another one of those sides in the next round. And from there, anything can happen in a semifinal, and a final.
Argentina don't look like a World Cup contender. But thanks to the world's best player and the friendliest of draws, they are anyway.