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Jul 2, 2014

Argentina vs. Belgium: 50-50 preview

ArgentinaArgentina
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The ESPN FC crew recap Matchday 19 as both matches went down to the wire.

Argentina and Belgium face each other in a mouth-watering quarterfinal in Brasilia this Saturday; Sam Kelly (Argentina) and Wim Van Walle (Belgium) preview the tie.

Sum up your tournament so far:

SK: Underwhelming, but touched by genius. As one of the more vocal champions (in English at least) of Argentina's free-scoring, fast-flowing attack, it's also been slightly embarrassing personally, to be frank. They've looked like an entirely different side from the one which swept through the qualifiers, unable to control the game when opponents have handed them the initiative and elected to defend deep, and subsequently less than convincing so far. Lionel Messi is proving a pretty useful trump card so far, but his teammates shouldn't be relying on him anything like so much. And yet they've managed four wins out of four so far, and as I was reminded by the locals when I went out for a coffee after Tuesday's match, "we're still in it, so it's still winnable."

WV: Most expected Belgium to top Group H but there was much discussion about the way they eventually did. Belgium presented themselves as a cautious, uninspired team for most of the three games, choosing to finish their opponents off in the last 20 minutes. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. But then came the second round game against the United States. Belgium looked like a different team. They sank their teeth in the game and never, not for one minute, let go. It was a mesmerizing display of relentless, attacking football. If not for the magnificent Tim Howard, it could have ended with a monstrous score line. This is how everybody expected the Red Devils to play, or even better. Suddenly, Belgium have three players in FIFA's team of the round, more than any other country.

WC history between the two countries :

SK: These sides have faced each other three times in total, all coming in the 1980s. Two of those meetings were in World Cups; in the 1982 first group stage, Belgium beat the then-holders 1-0 in the tournament's opening match, in Barcelona's Camp Nou (the stadium in which Argentina's young forward, Diego Maradona, would play his club football in the following season after being transferred from Boca Juniors). Four years later in the Estadio Azteca, Maradona scored twice to give Argentina a 2-0 win and take Argentina into the final. The sides haven't met since.

WV: Belgium played Argentina twice before in a World Cup. In the opening game in Spain in 1982, the then vice-European champions beat the reigning world champions 1-0, courtesy of an Erwin Vandenbergh goal that has reached legendary status in Belgium. Four years later they met in the semifinals in Mexico. Belgium saw two promising attacks ruled out for non-existent offsides before Diego Maradona did that thing he did that summer and single-handedly steered his country to a 2-0 win. The first-ever game between the two came at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. Argentina won 6-3. There was also a friendly in 1984 which ended in a 2-0 Argentina win. Advantage Argentina as far as history goes.

What are your expectations for the rest of the tournament?

SK: I really don't know, because Argentina could continue to be as stodgy as they have been so far, or they could make the necessary adjustments -- or just manage to nod in one of the numerous set pieces they keep winning early on in matches -- and open the game up, allowing them to impose their own style on proceedings again. If either of those things happen, we should see the Argentina of the qualifiers, which we caught glimpses of in their last group stage game against Nigeria. They'll be under pressure in this one, though, and also have the huge expectation of finally getting beyond the quarterfinals -- a feat they haven't managed since Italia '90, when as defending champions they were dethroned by West Germany in the final. Psychologically, there's going to be a lot of pressure.

WV: It's a tough one to call. Not one of the remaining countries is significantly stronger than the rest. Belgium and Colombia were the most convincing of the second round winners and Costa Rica are the tournament's surprise package. But it would be foolish to count out Brazil, Holland, France, Germany or, for that matter, Argentina. Even if they haven't played well and were lucky to survive Switzerland, they still have the mercurial talent of Messi, who can change a game even if he only gets a few touches. But they will do well to heed Maradona's warning: they will have to play a lot better or they will be in big trouble against Belgium.

Key Battle:

SK: Messi vs. Vincent Kompany. In the absence of any meaningful help from his midfielders -- and given the evidence of the tournament so far, we must assume that's going to continue -- Messi will again be Argentina's team going forward, rather than just their key man. Kompany's going to get close to him, probably aided by a fellow midfielder or defender, and things will be as tight as they have been all tournament thus far, unless Argentina can finally shake off their collective lack of interest and seek to properly exploit the space that putting two men on Messi will open up elsewhere in the Belgian formation. And of course, in every one of Argentina's games so far there's been a point when, however good that shackling of Messi has been throughout, he's finally broken free and won them the game (either scoring or, as he did on Tuesday, providing the assist). Can that pattern continue here?

WV: A football game is never a direct battle between a forward and a goalkeeper but here are some key statistics: Belgium are unbeaten in 21 consecutive games with Thibaut Courtois in goal. Argentina haven't lost with Messi in 24 consecutive games. And Messi hasn't scored against Courtois in seven. The great Johan Cruyff once said: "The longer a run like that goes on, the more likely it becomes that it is ended." It remains to be seen which of these runs ends on Saturday. Messi can score at will against almost any opposition but Courtois is perfectly capable of "doing a Howard".

Prediction:

SK: Until now Argentina's results have been easy to predict because even while playing lethargically, they've had clearly the better quality. This game is a little different. Messi's been so ruthlessly effective, though, that I think he can make the difference again. I'm going for Argentina by a goal, though very possibly not in normal time.

WV: Marc Wilmots has hinted that Belgium are not the favourites for this game. "We will have to adapt to Argentina," he said. "I have a plan in my head. But then again, I wonder how Argentina will adapt to us." Belgium will do well not to change too much. The Argentinian defence is shaky at best, and Nigeria demonstrated how vulnerable they can be against high-paced football. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero doesn't exactly ooze confidence either. With six different players already on the score sheet, Belgium must take their chances from every angle. Messi may score, but Belgium will score more. 2-1 Belgium.

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