Lionel Messi has been the subject of an ever increasing barrage of comparisons with Diego Maradona as he seeks to match the maverick legend and lead Argentina to the World cup trophy. A meeting with Belgium in the quarterfinals will do nothing to diminish such talk.
It was against the same country in the 1986 semifinals that Maradona really cemented the legacy of having all-but single-handedly delivered Argentina their second, and to this date last, World Cup. Off the back of scoring both goals against England, Maradona did likewise against Belgium, the second another brilliant individual strike that features prominently in the annals of the World Cup.
Thus far, there has been plenty to suggest that Messi will have to come up with similar instances of individual brilliance if Argentina are to get by Belgium and go onto take the trophy. For the first time on the World Cup stage, Messi has given a full account of his genius to the expectant watching billions across the globe. That has been enough to see Argentina win four matches out of four in Brazil, despite so few of his teammates providing a real helping hand.
Argentina have scored seven goals so far, Messi has scored four, assisted another, while one was an own goal and the other came from set piece. In the Round of 16, Messi was almost a lone force trying to break down Switzerland’s resistance, but, when not frustrated by the Swiss goalkeeper, he was let done by his teammates’ failure to capitalize on his good work. In the end, it took almost the full quota of extra time for Messi to break clear and slip a perfect pass into the path of Angel di Maria to get the win. Di Maria, while not always successfully, at least was battling to make an impact late on and gave the most encouraging signs yet that he could be ready to support Messi.
There is much doubt, however, about just where further support will come from. Messi’s partnership with Sergio Aguero was a major hit during qualification, but having not looked fit, the Manchester City striker is now ruled out with injury and his future participation in the tournament remains in doubt. Another member of Argentina’s famed three-pronged attack has also looked far from sharp. Gonzalo Higuain came into the tournament lacking fitness and has made little to no impact so far. And the man required to link what can sometimes become a broken team, as well as to supply Messi, Fernando Gago, has lacked incisiveness with his passing.
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Add that list of issues to a defense that has as expected been suspect, and Belgium have reason to go into the tie with plenty of confidence. It also took Belgium extra time and then further late drama even after establishing a lead to progress through the Round of 16. But against the United States Marc Wilmots’ much-hyped team produced their best performance of the World Cup and one that for the first time suggested they could fulfill much pre-tournament tipping.
While getting through the group stage with maximum points, Belgium had been far from convincing. Key to the improvement last time out was the performance of Kevin de Bruyne. Despite the attention given to bigger names like Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, in qualifying for the World Cup it was De Bruyne who was the team’s standout performer with four goals and four assists. Against the U.S. he was able to find those crucial pockets of space in between the lines to knit the previously fractured team together and become the key influence on the match. In extra time it was the former Chelsea and now Wolfsburg midfielder who provided the crucial opening goal and then an assist for the second.
Lukaku was the recipient of that assist and the supplier of one for the first goal after coming off the bench to run a tired U.S. defense ragged. Previously completely ineffectual in the tournament, having become first choice in the place of the injured Christian Benteke, Lukaku had lost his place in the side to 19-year-old Divock Origi. His showing against the U.S. could now see him win it back.
Yet, while Argentina’s star man has delivered in abundance so far, Belgium’s has only done so in the briefest of flashes. If Hazard can finally start producing the play he is capable of for his country then Belgium will feel they can truly be a threat to any team.
Both teams have weaknesses for the other to exploit. Belgium are especially vulnerable down their left flank, where Hazard often neglects his defensive duties and Jan Vertonghen is playing out of position at left-back. Argentina may look to move Ezequiel Lavezzi wider onto that side and try to get the thus far below-par Pablo Zabaleta overlapping.
Argentina’s defense presents at least as much opportunity, however. The back line will be further weakened by the absence through suspension of Marco Rojo, with José Basanta -- a center-back by trade -- likely to come in. The direct running of Dries Mertens should pose the 30-year-old problems, while the pace of either Lukaku or Origi could torment Federico Fernandez at the heart of Argentina’s defense.
Goals then should be in store. Once again it could be Messi -- and perhaps this time supported by Di Maria -- who proves decisive in just keeping Argentina on course for the trophy.
Argentina 3-2 Belgium
Betting odds (bovada.lv)
In 90 minutes:
Argentina win: 11/10
Belgium win: 11/4
Argentina: 20/37 Belgium: 31/20
When and where: The 2014 World Cup quarterfinal will kick off from the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia at noon ET.