Lionel Messi and Argentina are three games away from winning the World Cup, but they face their toughest test of the tournament so far against the Netherlands.
Friday’s quarter-final at Lusail Stadium is a compelling matchup, not least because of the World Cup history between these two teams.
They last met in the semi-finals eight years ago – in a goalless game which Argentina eventually won on penalties – and before that they have met in two other knockout games: the quarter-finals in 1998 – best remembered for Dennis Bergkamp’s sensational winning goal – and the final in 1978, when Argentina won the World Cup for the first time.
Several main characters remain from the 2014 encounter. In the Netherlands, Louis van Gaal is back as coach and veteran left-back Daley Blind remains an important part of the national team, while Messi remains Argentina’s Talisman and most potent attacking threat.
Much of the spotlight is, as always, on 35-year-old Messi, who has been central to Argentina’s best moments of the tournament so far.
With three goals – including a stunning strike against Mexico and a well-worked move against Australia – and one assist in four games, Messi is the heartbeat of this Argentina team even in the twilight of his career.
“At this point in his career, he’s an aging genius,” sports pundit Simon Brundish told CNN Sport. “He doesn’t have the ability to carry it out [Paulo] Dybala in the team would do, but he is a genius and he will win you games.
Indeed, attention has been drawn to the amount of walking Messi has done during Argentina’s World Cup games – slowly working his way into space before bursting into life with fashionable scoring opportunities.
For example, against Australia in the round of 18, he walked 4,752.7 meters – according to FIFA, 300 meters more than anyone else on the field.
“If you look closely at Messi, you’d see that he’s been standing in space so much when the opposition has got the ball,” Brundish explained, adding that the amount of Messi’s walks also speaks to Argentina’s defensive organisation.
“Argentina built their system around him without getting involved with the press,” Brundish said. “However, they are not a high-pressing team… That has never been part of Messi’s game and his role is not part of it.”
Both teams have had mistakes in Qatar – Argentina’s surprise loss against Saudi Arabia and Holland’s draw against Ecuador – and both will be hoping to reach the final four for the first time since 2014.
The Netherlands have looked impressive going forward with Cody Gakpo, who has three goals this World Cup, and Memphis Depay, who completed his stunning move against the USA in the last 16.
But Argentina will be hopeful that their master playmaker can add to his goal tally by unlocking the Netherlands’ back three.
“Leo surprises you every day with the things he does,” midfielder Alexis MacAllister told reporters on Thursday. – You can see that he is happy, and that is very important to us.
Still, this Argentina team is more than just Messi. Midfielder Enzo Fernández and forward Julián Álvarez have had impressive campaigns, and goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez has made important saves, particularly against Australia.
“It’s not about me or the Netherlands against Messi, it’s about the Netherlands against Argentina,” Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk told reporters this week, according to Reuters. “They are a fantastic team with fantastic players and we need to do well in all aspects of the game.”
Having lost the previous three World Cup finals and failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament, van Gaal’s side are likely to feel like there is nothing to do in Qatar.
Data Insight company Nielsen sees Argentina as the quarter-final favorites with a 58 percent chance of advancing, but neither side has had the chance to test themselves against one of the tournament’s top teams.
But that is about to change. The winner of Friday’s game will likely face Brazil in the semi-finals, although the five-time champions must first get past Croatia in their own quarter-final.
Brazil vs. Croatia: 10 a.m. ET at Education City Stadium
Argentina vs. Netherlands: 2 p.m. ET at Lusail Stadium
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