On 5th July, two teams will step onto the turf at Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional to fight for a place in the FIFA World Cup semi-finals. Two squads that have a barrage of talent – one with the reputation of double world champions and the other being relative newbies. Argentina will have arguably the world’s best player in Leo Messi and a star-studded support cast. Belgium have the stars of the future – the Hazards, De Bruynes and Vertonghens.
But for both these teams, this World Cup has been anything but plain sailing. Before the tournament both were shown respect. Argentina labeled as early favourites and Belgium as dark horses to cause mayhem. Yet, both sets of players have flattered to deceive. Argentina in particular have struggled and huffed and puffed into this tie against Belgium who have been more impressive but not barely enough. This World Cup was labeled a fight between Messi – Ronaldo – Neymar and while the Portuguese was unfit and unable to inspire his side to anything noteworthy, crashing out in the Group Stage the Barca team mates from bitter national rivals have been the shining beacons of their nations. Let us not kid ourselves, without Messi and Neymar neither team would be in the current Quarter Finals draw. It’s a pattern all around the World Cup this year, where teams have found it much more difficult to break down opponents of a lesser quality because of their willingness to take the ‘park the frigging bus’ approach. It’s made for matches in the Round of 16 causing masses of mini nap sessions for ninety minutes only to be awakened in the last few of stoppage time or extra time. What a bore.
Of course, come to look at it, the last eight has some tantalizing ties and Argentina v. Belgium is right up there. Messi, singlehandedly guiding Argentina on a mission to lift his World Cup going against opponents he’s met in some form or the other over the last eighteen months. And in between the sticks for Belgium is Messi’s least favorite man on Earth right now – Thibaut Courtois. How the Argentine would love to smash a few past him and dispel the demons of the torrid time he had in the Champions League and La Liga against the Atletico (Chelsea??) custodian. And across the halfway line we have Eden Hazard who has flattered to deceive so much that if Chelsea fans only saw the World Cup they’d have wished he was offloaded instead of De Bruyne who has had a ripper of a tournament. Then there’s other underperformers like Axel Witsel, Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku (who did make a difference off the bench against USA). A generation of young stars would love nothing more than to cause a massive upset to one of the tournament favorites and announce the heralding of a new era of footballing superstars.
Argentina have their task cut out for them. Five of their seven goals so far were either by Messi or created by him. Aguero is injured again, Higuain looks like a fish out of water and is cumbersome in attack, Palacio is a waste of the Albiceleste shirt when he replaces him and Di Maria has not shown any of the verve and enthusiasm that saw him become Madrid’s player of the season. At the back, Marcos Rojo has looked as underpar as he is and Mascherano has been one bad slip away from breaking a tibia or two and facing a few months on the sidelines.
Belgium have seemingly nothing wrong other than Hazard under-performing but will have to be cautious. Their gung-ho approach needs to be tamed for if they give a misfiring Argentina enough chances they will be buried before half-time. Belgium have every chance of progressing if they are pragmatic, not enigmatic. In the end though, we’re hoping for a rip roaring encounter between two sides overloaded with attacking prowess that should be a treat to make up for the snooze-fest that was the Round of 16.