In the 1986 World Cup, a Maradona inspired Argentina fell to Belgium in a shock defeat - could today be a repeat?

PREVIEW: Argentina face their toughest test yet in Belgium

Argentina and Belgium are teams that are on similar ground, but for different circumstances.  Argentina are still far too reliant on Lionel Messi, and despite the bit-part contribution from Angel Di Maria, Argentina could have well gone home already had it not been for their talisman.  Belgium have also underwhelmed on the whole this summer, but their struggles can be attributed to not only a relative lack of cohesive play this summer that only finally began to be rectified in their 2-1 win over the United States, but unlike Argentina, their star-man (Eden Hazard) as failed to show up as expected.

Argentina need to be so much more than just Lionel Messi if they are to have any chance at lifting the World Cup

Argentina need to be so much more than just Lionel Messi if they are to have any chance at lifting the World Cup

It seems fitting that these two sides would clash in the quarterfinals, a show down which at least Diego Maradona will want to see, no doubt living vicariously through Messi today as he hopes Argentina can do a number on Belgium to remind them that 1986 was just a glitch in the matrix.

While Belgium showed signs of re-birth against the United States, Eden Hazard has still failed to live up to expectations.

While Belgium showed signs of re-birth against the United States, Eden Hazard (center) has still failed to live up to expectations.

While we have not seen a great team this summer, we have seen many good teams and Argentina and Belgium, despite their struggles, still fall into that category.  Unfortunately for us, one of them will be going home by 2pm EST – will it be Messi falling short of the mark on the world stage once again, or will it be the last dark horse of the tournament being sent home packing? We’ll soon find out.

Projected Starting XI’s

Argentina (4-2-3-1): Romero; Basanta, Fernandez, Garay, Zabaleta; Mascherano, Gago; Di Maria, Messi, Lavezzi; Higuain

Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Vertonghen, Kompany, van Buyten, Alderweireld; Witsel, Fellaini; Hazard, De Bruyne, Mertens; Lukaku

While Eden Hazard has underwhelmed, Kevin De Bruyne has been far and away Belgium's most creative threat.

While Eden Hazard has underwhelmed, Kevin De Bruyne has been far and away Belgium’s most creative threat.

Key’s for Argentina:

- Their deployment in the 4-2-3-1 against Switzerland showed that it is far more suited to their style of play and their attacking personnel than the 4-3-3 that they have been using for the vast majority of this tournament.  Not only does it give Messi more options in front and along side, but it brings Angel Di Maria into the play far more often – we saw how devastating that can be when he bagged his winner against Switzerland.

- With the absence of Marcos Rojo through yellow card accumulation, Argentina will have to adjust tactics in regards to how the back-four supports the midfield and forward players.  While a capable defender, Jose Basanta is not nearly as adept to surging up the pitch as Rojo is, and unless Argentina want to have their own Benedikt Howedes in their XI, Alejandro Sabella should have him sit more at home, which will hopefully counter the threat from either Dries Mertens or Kevin Mirallas.

- Stop going through Messi for every foray into the final third.  Yes he is their talisman, yes he is brilliant and yes he is the best footballer on the planet, but Argentina continue to force their play through him, and that is a large part of the problem for them this summer.  Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi are talented in their own right, and perhaps allowing other players to create will give Messi just that much more extra wiggle room when he receives the ball back – a rather dangerous scenario for Belgium to be in.

Key’s for Belgium:

- START QUICKLY OR PERISH!  The longer Belgium fail to find the net against Argentina, the greater the likelihood that they will fall prey to another moment of Messi magic.  We saw it happen in every match in the group stage and then against Switzerland as well – Messi will turn it on in the later stages when it is needed.  Belgium are brilliant in the attack, but need to finish off chances early that are sure to be created, or they are on the first thing that flies back to Brussels.

- Given the fact that Eden Hazard has not been nearly at his best this summer, they need to put further faith and reliance on Kevin De Bruyne, because he has been brilliant.  The young Wolfsburg playmaker is the heartbeat of Belgium’s attack, and his performance against the United States in particular showed that he is prepared to come to the fore where as Hazard has failed to live up to expectations.

- With Argentina being the best side they have faced this summer, with the most offensive threats on the field at any given time, this could be the match where Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are truly exposed on the flanks at the back.  Both have been excellent providing service and support for the attack this summer, but they have been caught out many times before by lesser attacking teams – you don’t need to give Argentina any additional help finding space and chances.  Marc Wilmots may want to consider having the pair of them go forward just a little bit less to shore up things at the back.

Key Battles:

- Axel Witsel v Javier Mascherano – The midfield battle was not highlighted in my keys for the match, but it still will remain one of the most key sub-plots of the entire match.  Witsel has been quite good for Belgium this summer, often shining as not only a deeper-lying playmaker, but as a box-to-box player that supports both sides of the ball.  Belgium has had much success in controlling the midfield, but they have yet to come up against a player of Mascherano’s quality – there are few better at throwing a monkey wrench into the opposition midfield than he is, and if he is successful, one major lifeline to the forward players will be cut off.

- Eden Hazard v Pablo Zabaleta – They’ll know each other quite well from the Premier League, and while that may seem like an advantage for Argentina on the surface, it’s equally an advantage for Belgium and Hazard.  He will know the ins and outs of the Argentina and if he shows up today, he could well use that knowledge to his advantage to finally put in the type of performance we have hoped to see from him.

- Lionel Messi v Daniel van Buyten – Why was DvB highlighted here and not the entire Belgium back-four? Because van Buyten’s liability at the back has yet to be truly exploited this summer.  He’s been covered by Vincent Kompany’s pace extremely well, but Belgium’s back four has really yet to be truly tested either.  Enter Messi, and the potential for him to target van Buyten all match long as the weak link in the chain.

Match Prediction

This is an incredibly tough match to call, and I expect it to be a very tight match once proceedings get under way as well.  With both sides really failing to put their rubber stamp on the tournament, it may well boil down to Messi v Belgium at the end of the day, much the same way it was Maradona v Belgium back in the 80′s.  But, despite their shortcomings, both sides ooze quality, and there is always the possibility that this could turn into one of the best matches of the tournament.  Unfortunately for Argentina however, long gone are the days where you can rely on a single player to bring you to the World Cup promise land, and I actually think this is the final stop for them this summer.  While Hazard has not been at his best, Belgium have shown greater sides of finding their overall team game, and have multiple goal scoring threats who have found the back of the net this summer, unlike Argentina who have really only had Messi.  For me, 2-1 Belgium in a “shocker” and a trip to the semi’s for the Rode Duivels.

 

Tags: 2014 World Cup Argentina Belgium Preview And Predictions Soccer

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