Dubbed as the “golden generation” in the build up to the World Cup, Belgium enters its first quarterfinal in nearly three decades against old foe and favored Argentina on Saturday at the Nacional in Brasilia.
The last times these two countries met this deep in the World Cup was the 1986 semifinals. Belgium unfortunately ran into an Argentine squad led by former great Diego Maradona that couldn’t be denied en route to its second world title. Maradona would score two goals and Belgium never reached further than the Round of 16 until this year.
But now with striker Romelu Lukaku showing signs of life and fellow attackers Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne guiding the offense, and decorated team captain Vincent Kompany holding down the backline Belgium’s latest batch of talent has lived up to the early billing that pegged them as World Cup dark horses.
While Belgium continues to chase a 28-year-old ghost of success, Argentina forward Lionel Messi are doing the same. This will be La Albiceleste’s third trip to the quarterfinals in the last four World Cups, but they’ve never advanced any further than 1990’s runner-up squad and 1986’s Cup raisers.
Now participating in his second Cup, team captain Messi has given Argentina much reason to believe this year, netting four goals, including a winning left-footed strike from distance against Iran in the group stage and the clever assist to Angel Di Maria for the clincher in the 1-0 Round of 16 victory over Switzerland.
Messi’s turning of the international corner has made Argentina threats to advance to the championship round, but questions surrounding the backline persist and leave La Albiceleste’s vulnerable to another early exit.
Manager Alejandro Sabella has had to reshuffle his backline, shuttling between three and four man sets, and with defender Marcos Rojo suspended after receiving his second yellow card against the Swiss, it remains to be seen if Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Gray and Fedrico Fernandez can pick up the slack. Sabella may bring on Martin Demichelis, owner of 38 caps but 33 years of age, at some point should the defense struggle.
Still La Albiceleste’s backline hasn’t been tested too much thanks to an overwhelming possession advantage. Argentina has parlayed their excellent midfield control, 65.1 percent possession for best in the tournament according to The Independent, into four straight victories but did struggle against teams like Iran and Nigeria that focus more on defense than attacking.
The Argentines may have better luck against a Belgium backline that’s been plagued by injuries and went through a marathon 120 minutes against the United States in the Round of 16. Starting defender Thomas Vermaelen sat out the 2-1 win over the U.S., Kompany has gutted out a groin injury, and Anthony Vanden Borre may miss the rest of the tournament after an ankle injury suffered during training prior to the U.S. game.
Kompany’s status before the U.S. match was also up in the air, but he eventually played while picking up a yellow card. The Belgians do have another veteran presence in 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten, along with the owner of 58 caps and vice-captain Jan Vertonghen.
Belgium may still be vulnerable along the back, which could put an attack that’s lacked a sense of urgency into overdrive. Five of Belgium’s six goals have come from the bench and none before the 70th minute, and Lukaku didn’t score his first goal until one minute after his substation in extra time against the U.S. Hazard registered two assists in four matches, but has yet to score, and midfielder De Bruyne has assisted two scores and also picked up his first goal against the U.S.
Betting Odds (via bovada.lv)
Over/Under: 2.5 goals