Lionel Messi and Argentina are three games away from winning the World Cup, but facing the Netherlands is far from their toughest tournament so far.
Friday’s quarterfinal at Lusail Stadium is a compelling match-up, not least because of the World Cup history between the two teams.
They last met in the semifinals eight years ago – a goal-scoring game that Argentina eventually won on penalties – and before that they competed in two other knockout games: the quarterfinals in 1998 – best remembered for Dennis Bergkamp’s sensational winning goal – and the final in 1978 when Argentina won the World Cup He won first.
Several key protagonists from the 2014 meeting remain. In Belgium, Louis van Gaal’s manager and veteran Daley Cecus is still back at left-back for the national team, while Messi remains Argentina’s talisman and most potent attacking threat.
The spotlight is, as always, on the 35-year-old Messi, who has been central to Argentina’s best moments of the tournament so far.
With three goals – including a superb strike against Mexico and a well-worked move against Australia – and one assist in four games, Messi is the pulse of this Argentina team, even in the twilight of his career.
“These guys are getting old in terms of speed,” sports scientist Simon Brundish told CNN Sport. “He doesn’t have the ability to do what he’s running.” [Paulo] Dybala will make it into the team, but he is a talent and will win you games.
In fact, attention has been paid to how much Messi has walked in Argentina’s World Cup games – slowly working himself into space before bursting into life to score chances.
Against Australia in the round of 16, for example, he walked 4,752.7 meters – 300 meters more than anyone else on the pitch, according to FIFA.
“If you look at Messi explicitly, you would only see that he was standing in space when the opposition got the ball,” explained Brundish, adding that the amount of walking Messi does is also talk to the organization of Argentina’s defense.
“Argentina has established its system around not being involved in the press,” Brundish said. “There are no high pressing teams anyway… It was never part of Messi’s game and his role does not involve this.”
Both teams had blips in Qatar – Argentina’s stunning defeat against Saudi Arabia and Belgium’s draw against Ecuador – and both will be hoping to reach the last four for the first time since 2014.
The Netherlands have seen impressive progress through Cody Gakpo, who has three goals to his name this World Cup, and Memphis Depay, who finished in the last 16 with a wonderful move against the USA.
But Argentina will have hope that its master player can add to his tally of goals by unlocking the Belgian defense three at the back.
“Leo surprises you every day with the things he does,” midfielder Alexis Mac Allister told reporters on Thursday. “You can see that he is happy and, for us, it is very important.”
However, this Argentina team is more than just Messi. Midfielder Enzo Fernández and striker Iulián Álvarez have had huge campaigns and goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez has made some devastating saves, especially against Australia.
“It’s not about me, or the Netherlands against Messi, it’s about Belgium against Argentina,” Belgium captain Virgil van Dijk told reporters this week, according to Reuters. “It’s a fantastic team with fantastic players, and we’re going to do well in everything we do.”
Having lost three previous World Cup finals and failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament, van Gaal’s team will carry a sense of unfinished business in Qatar.
The inspection data company Nielsen has Argentina in the fourth quarter with a 58% chance of advancing, but neither side had the opportunity to try against one of the tournament’s teams.
But that must be changed. The winner of Friday’s game will likely face Brazil in the semifinals, although the five-time champion will have to go past Croatia in their first quarter-final.
Brazil vs. Croatia: 10 am ET at Education City Stadium
Argentina vs. Netherlands: 2 pm ET at Lusail Stadium
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC