The FourFourTwo Preview: Argentina vs Belgium
The 1986 semi-final revisited, with different personnel and more garish boots.
Two teams heading in different directions; both arriving in Brazil being touted as strong contenders.
Argentina's firepower in particular was seen as a reason for tipping them to go at least as far as the semi-finals, for the first time in 20 years. Belgium's supposed golden generation made them the tournament's dark horse, although they were mentioned so often as being a dark horse they ceased actually being a dark horse and became too obvious. But then the talking stopped and the tournament began, and things didn't quite go to plan.
Argentina have laboured horribly in reaching this quarter-final, stumbling through Group F as almost default winners and then edging a dismal Switzerland in extra-time. But for Lionel Messi’s goals, they'd be back home right now. We should have seen the signs, really. Despite boasting Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain in a three-pronged attack, coach Alejandro Sabella admitted "I'd be happy to win half-nil".
He wasn't joking. Even though he’s employed four forwards and two full-backs told to attack in their games so far, his approach has left them unbalanced and vulnerable. Messi has been inventive enough to paper over the cracks, but for how much longer? Based on their route to this game, few now expect Argentina to last the pace.
By contrast, having been downgraded from dark horses to also-rans on the strength of their dull group games, Belgium have re-emerged as a decent dark horse on the strength of their thrilling defeat of the USA.
In three Group H games against teams who wouldn't or couldn't open up, Belgium failed to justify their pre-tournament billing. But as Vincent Kompany said: “You need two teams to produce an exciting match.”
Against the US they at last showed sparks of the Belgium we’d been promised. The fact they had 39 shots on goal yet only scored twice speaks volumes of their problems – Romelu Lukaku finally found his way into the opposition penalty area, finally scored and finally played like a man with his boots on the right feet. Famous last words, but there’s a feeling things may be falling into place for Belgium at just the right time.
What the local media say
Despite witnessing the same horror show we all saw in the previous round, Argentina’s De Tucuman Tribuno still believes. “The dream is still waiting intact,” it reported. “Follow the Pope, praying that Argentina still have much luck. If it does not, it’s not fair."
Belgian daily De Standaard reported Marc Wilmots’ view that Argentina are vulnerable. “The game will be won primarily on mental aspect,” he said. “I am curious whether and how they are going to adapt to us. they have excellent players, but there is no balance. We want to reach the semi-finals. I believe we can.”
Key battle: Lionel Messi vs Vincent Kompany
"How to stop Messi? We'll show you tomorrow how we do it." So said Switzerland's veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld on the eve of their last 16 game, and while Hitzfeld concocted a plan that stopped Messi from scoring, he still created the only goal – 1 of 8 he crafted during the game. Assuming the role of both scorer and creator in a team that lacks any other real spark, much as Maradona had done in 1986, Messi's role is beyond crucial if Argentina are to scrape into the last four.
He’s so far scored 4 and assisted 1 of Argentina's 7 goals in these finals. The 18 chances he's created in Brazil for team-mates is the highest of any player. Interestingly, at 26, Messi is the same age Maradona was when he lifted the World Cup in 1986, playing in a team he had to almost single-handedly carry to the final. That might be a sign of something, but it probably isn't.
For Belgium, whoever comes closest to him will become the key man, but we’re singling out Vincent Kompany for the fact he’s the captain and the man responsible for instilling defensive discipline in a team built to attack. When Belgium have the ball, the key man becomes Kevin de Bruyne, who delivered the final ball for a Belgian shot 10 times against the USA, more than any other player in any game at this World Cup. The former Chelsea man was also involved in both Belgian goals, scoring the first and assisting the second.
Facts and figures
- Argentina have been victorious (via penalties or winning AET) in 6 of their 7 World Cup games that have gone to extra-time.
- Argentina haven’t won any of their last 4 World Cup quarter-finals outright, going through on penalties against Yugoslavia in 1990 and being eliminated in 1998 (1-2 vs Netherlands), 2006 (on penalties vs Germany) and 2010 (0-4 vs Germany).
- Belgium’s 6 goals in this World Cup have all been scored from the 70th; 4 of their 6 goals have been scored by substitutes.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Despite Sabella's "half-nil" maxim, Argentina will set up to win, rather than simply not lose, which should play into Belgium's hands but also give Messi space. A single goal either way. We’ll say Argentina 2-1 Belgium.