Deep malaise must end for World Cup hopefuls Argentina or Belgium

RIO DE JANEIRO —

History is written by the winners and so it’s easy to forget how often champions have begun tournaments slowly, how many iffy performances there can be on the way to glory.

Very few sides hit the ground running and keep running all the way to the tape. In the last 40 years, only Brazil in 2002 has won all its games, and that was with the benefit of by far the most gentle draw any champion has had. The hope for Argentina is that so far it has simply been finding its rhythm and that there will be a surge to the line against Belgium (live, Saturday, 12 p.m. ET).

In that regard, Angel di Maria’s goal against Switzerland in the Round of 16 could galvanize the side, just as Laurent Blanc’s winner against Paraguay in the last 16 in 1998 lifted France, or, perhaps more appositely, as Diego Maradona’s brilliant second against England in the quarterfinal lifted Argentina in 1986. 

Argentina’s right back Pablo Zabaleta insisted that that goal and Lionel Messi’s late winner against Iran in the group stage have added to a sense of belief.

BREAKING THE BANK

"When you win a game like that you enjoy it more," Zabaleta admitted earlier in the week. "We know it is always difficult for the other team when they play against Argentina as they should be aware of our strikers. They know that they have to play very well for 90 minutes because if they give them space they will kill them for sure. This is fantastic obviously for this team."

Switzerland had stifled Messi relatively well, restricting him to only a couple of shimmies when, with two minutes of extra-time remaining, he at last got a run on the Swiss center-backs. As they converged on him and he pushed the ball right for di Maria, the aesthetic was oddly reminiscent of Maradona’s pass to Jorge Burrachaga for the late winner in he 1986 World Cup final. And that, of course, is the underlying narrative of this tournament: Can Messi do what Maradona did in 1986 and drag a side almost single-handedly to World Cup glory?

"We know he is our main player, our captain, the best player in the world," said Zabaleta. "This team is playing for him as we know how important Messi is for us. We are so lucky to have Messi in Argentina. he has been one of the best players in the world for many years and you always expect a lot of things from him, like Maradona many years ago. This team is doing well in the World Cup. We try always to keep a clean sheet as we know we have quality enough to score goals — Messi, di Maria, Higuain, Lavezzi, all of them are quick, fast players. They always produce something and this is very important for the team."

Still, there is a reliance on Messi, who has won the man of the match in each of the four games so far. "That is what we expect from him, always that the best player in the world will make the difference in every game," said Zabaleta. "More so when you see that he is enjoying it himself, the World Cup. Every time we recover the ball we try to pass to him as he is the best player we have in the team and he will score goals."

"If Argentina decide to play their usual attacking game, we’ll have a pretty good chance against them," Belgium captain Vincent Kompany told reporters this week. "You need two teams to produce an exciting match. The Americans tried to push forward. That’s all we were asking for. It takes two to tango, and they wanted the same thing as us."

AS GOOD AS IT GETS

And that, perhaps, is a point that can be missed about Alejandro’s Sabella’s side. It comes with such an aura that opponents often seek to do no more than to stifle it. That was true against Iran and it was true against Switzerland, both of whom packed men behind the ball and looked to play on the break. In both games Argentina became ragged and in both games it was frustrated, but ultimate in both it did enough. 

As gages to whether Argentina will win the World Cup, neither is especially relevant because the doubt about this side is not its attack but it’s defense, something Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria exposed even before that chaotic last three minutes against Switzerland. In that sense, although recent performances have raised questions about Argentina, they’re not especially important ones.

The big doubt over Sabella’s side remains, as when the tournament began, about the defense. ”Obviously they have di Maria, Lavezzi, Higuain and Messi,” Wilmots said. ”But I also saw they showed a lack of balance within the team and that they had problems.”

The problem is, if you try to exploit that, you risk leaving space for Messi. And when he is in this sort of form, that can be fatal.