Argentina Messi

Argentina captain Lionel Messi celebrates with a teammate after beating Belgium on Saturday. (ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP/Getty Images / July 5, 2014)

Now that Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez have gone home and Brazil’s Neymar has gone to the hospital, this World Cup belongs to Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

And nobody knows that better then the players on Belgium’s team, who pushed, pummeled and otherwise punished Messi for most of Saturday afternoon, only to see Argentina and its unflappable captain emerge with a 1-0 victory that sends it on to Wednesday’s semifinal.

Argentina, which got the only goal it needed from Gonzalo Higuain in the eighth minute, advances to the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990. It will meet the winner of Saturday’s late game between the Netherlands and Costa Rica.

But that’s still one big step from where Messi wants to be – the World Cup final. He is arguably the best player in the sport, the only man to win four consecutive world player of the year awards. But at 27 he has never played for a world championship – had never before made it past the quarterfinals, in fact.

And that remains the one thing missing for both an otherwise impressive resume and an equally impressive career.

Messi was everywhere Saturday, dribbling down the touchlines, drawing defenders into the corners – even dropping back to repeatedly play the ball at the center stripe.

At one point he maneuvered in and around three defenders, eventually earning a foul. It hardly mattered that the resulting free kick was high. And though he didn’t add to this team-high four goals – in fact, he was denied on a splendid save by Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois in stoppage time – he absorbed enough of the focus and fury of the Belgian defense to give his teammates room to work.

The game’s lone goal went to Higuain, who took advantage of a couple of lucky breaks to score.

The sequence started with Belgium captain Vincent Kompany getting stripped at midfield. Angel Di Maria, who wound up with the ball on the edge of the box, tried to flick a left-footed pass ahead to Pablo Zabaleta, who was cutting toward the goal, but the ball struck the foot of defender Jan Vertonghen and bounced directly to Higuain. From there, Higuain’s right-footed volley split two defenders on its way to the far corner of the net for his first goal of this World Cup.

Twenty-five minutes later Di Maria hobbled off with a leg injury, which left Messi to shoulder even more of the ballhandling responsibilities for Argentina.

Belgium nearly tied the score just before the half, but Kevin Mirallas’ diving header of a perfect Vertonghen cross was about a foot wide of the near post.

Early in the second half Higuain had a chance to put Argentina up by two goals at the end of a counterattack, but after deftly dribbling through the legs of Kompany to enter the area alone, his right-footed shot slipped harmlessly over the crossbar.

On the touchline his coach, Alejandro Sabella, leaned so far back in disappointment he nearly fell over, stumbling back toward the dugout before being grabbed about the shoulders by an assistant.

Then it was Belgium’s turn to miss with a Marouane Fellaini header just a bit too high in the 61st minute. The Europeans’ next good chance actually came courtesy of Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay, whose sliding attempt at a save would have knocked the ball into his own goal if not the quick reactions of goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Belgium, which hadn’t scored a goal earlier than the 70th minute in winning its first four games here, got busy late again. But Argentina’s defense did just enough to make the 1-0 lead hold up.

kbaxter@tribune.com