Netherlands ekes out win, will play Argentina in World Cup semis

Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul (23) celebrates with Dirk Kuyt after making the final save in a penalty shoot out during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between the Netherlands and Costa Rica at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil, Saturday, July 5, 2014. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

SALVADOR, Brazil - The margin of victory in the World Cup knockout rounds has been razor thin and Saturday's quarterfinal matchups were no different. But the favorites managed to advance again to set up another marquee semifinal.

In the first match, Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain ended a four-game scoreless streak, netting in the eighth minute against Belgium and giving his team all they would need to advance.

The Netherlands, off their dramatic comeback against Mexico in the round of 16, were taken to the limit by Costa Rica before finally triumphing on penalties, 4-3, after 120 minutes of scoreless soccer.

The two sides will square off Wednesday to decide who will play for the game's ultimate trophy. Brazil and Germany match up against each other Tuesday.

In another stroke of tactical genius at this year's World Cup, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal pulled Jasper Cillessen moments after the Ajax goalkeeper had kept his team in the match by saving a shot from Marcos Urena in extra time.

Krul looked super confident during the shootout, saving the second and fifth penalties.

When Krul stopped Ruiz's penalty, Cillessen, watching from the sideline, punched the air in celebration.

Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas had kept his team in the match with a string of saves in the first half and again in extra time. When Wesley Sneijder twice beat him late in regulation and again in the second half of extra time, the woodwork made the stop.

Sneijder hit the post with a free kick in the 80th minute and sent a curling shot over Navas and off the crossbar before the penalty shootout.

At the end, however, Navas could not stop any of the four Dutch penalties as Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt all scored.

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Belgium's Dries Mertens leaves the pitch as Argentina players celebrate at the end of the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Argentina and Belgium at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday, July 5, 2014.
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

Argentina's Higuain came into the World Cup still recovering from an ankle injury that had sidelined him since early May. The 26-year-old Napoli striker looked out-of-form in the group stage and wasn't giving Argentina the edge it needed in the penalty area.

That changed in the eighth minute of the game in Brasilia, as he picked up a deflected pass from Angel Di Maria just inside the area and beat goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with a half-volley toward the far post.

"Higuain has the class to put the ball where he wants it. There is nothing we could do about it," Courtois said.

A poor consolation for the Belgium goalkeeper was that he once again kept Messi from scoring, as he had done in seven straight matches at club level.

The Argentina captain missed a chance to get his fifth goal of the tournament when he failed to beat Courtois in stoppage time.

Buoyed by the melodic chants of its fans, Argentina protected its lead thanks to a near-flawless defensive line, bolstered by strong performances from central midfielders Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Belgium lacked the imagination to find a way into the final third of the pitch, and created few clear chances apart from a pair of headers by Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini.

Belgium's most creative player, Eden Hazard, had little impact on the game beyond receiving a yellow card for a studs-first challenge on Lucas Biglia. Hazard cut a disconsolate figure as he was substituted by Nacer Chadli in the 75th.

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots didn't think that his team fell to a stronger opponent, calling Argentina "just an ordinary team."

"If we had equalized in the last few minutes, they are dead, they are finished," Wilmots said.

Long after the game, thousands of Argentine fans flocked to one section of the Estadio Nacional to celebrate the country's best World Cup performance since it lost the 1990 final to West Germany.

"They played an excellent match," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said of his team. "After 24 years, we can be among the four best teams in the world. At least we lived up to the minimum objective."

Argentina has won every match in Brazil by a single goal. In previous games, it scraped by thanks to individual moments of magic by Messi. But against Belgium, Argentina looked in control even after losing Di Maria - the team's most influential player in Brazil aside from Messi - to a right thigh injury in the 33rd minute.

Sabella said the Real Madrid midfielder will have medical tests on Sunday to discover the extent of the injury.

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