Argentina struck early, and it was almost an accident. Angel di Maria attempted a pass, Jan Vertonghen deflected it, and Gonzalo Higuain volleyed perfectly past a helpless Thibault Courtois. And although Argentina had a couple of stellar chances later in the second half -- Ezequiel Lavezzi hit the crossbar and Courtois saved a dangerous chance from Lionel Messi in stoppage time -- the game bogged down rapidly after the Argentine goal. The blue and white spent much of the day with the bus parked in their own end, preventing a disjointed Belgium offense which lacked any real flow from truly threatening Sergio Romero. Belgium did come close near the end of the first half when Kevin Mirallas headed a cross just wide of the post, and in the waning minutes the Red Devils pressed furiously and had a few close calls, but for naught. Argentina moves on. They may, however, be without di Maria, who left with a thigh problem just after the half-hour mark.
Through most of the game, Costa Rica had few chances, and those they had were either on set pieces or on questionable calls where they could have been offered a penalty but weren't. The Dutch, on the other hand, had multiple efforts throughout, but most broke against Costa Rica's excellent back line; those that did not were saved by Keylor Navas continuing the trend of excellent CONCACAF goalkeeping. Unfortunately for Los Ticos, that back line had a hell of a time actually clearing the ball out of danger, and that did serious damage to their ability to mount an attack. The first ninety minutes ended with no score.
With just two minutes left in stoppage time, though, the Dutch very nearly won the game. The echoing refrain in the aftermath was "HOW?" As in "how did they not score?" The sequence started with Robin van Persie taking a free kick just outside the top of the left corner of the penalty area. He went straight for goal, and Navas punched it clear, but a poor clearance by Marco Ureña deflected straight to Wesley Sneijder, who passed to Daley Blind, who in turn crossed low across the face of the net. The ball somehow cleared the entire mass of both defenders and attackers in front of goal and found van Persie right at the corner of the goalie box -- with Navas sprawled on the ground ten yards away, helpless. van Persie fired at the near corner, but Yeltsin Tejada was there and deflected with his thigh... up and into the crossbar. The ball bounced straight out to an unmarked Stefan de Vrij, who was unable to control it and his attempt at a cross was just a hair late; the ball had passed over the goal line.
Midway through the first half of extra time, Costa Rica could have had another penalty called in their favor, but again did not. And throughout most of extra time, Los Ticos simply could not get on the attack, while the Dutch continued pressing maniacally. In the second half of extra time, Costa Rica finally showed offensive life, and for fifteen minutes there was a frantic back-and-forth even though Costa Rica steadfastly insisted on only pushing five men forward on the attack. Neither team could find the net, and for the second time in as many games Costa Rica would go to penalty kicks to advance. Just before extra time expired, Louis van Gaal made a key substitution: he replaced keeper Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul, and it worked. Krul saved shots from Giancarlo González and Michael Umaña; Navas, meanwhile, who'd been Costa Rica's hero for nearly a month, was unable to stop van Persie, Arjen Robben, Sneijder, nor Dirk Kuyt. The Oranje advanced, giving us two Europe vs. South America semifinals.
And we shall return on Monday night to preview that very event, ahead of Brazil's meeting with the Germans. See you then!