Belgium don't fear Messi and company
ARGENTINA v BELGIUM
(Tonight, 11.59pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 141 & StarHub TV Ch 223)
Up against Lionel Messi and his colleagues, you might think that Belgium coach Marc Wilmots would be concerned.
Quite the contrary. After a heart-racing 2-1 victory over the United States, confidence is high in the Belgian camp. They will not be intimidated by Argentina.
"I already have everything in my mind," Wimots said. "We're not going to go and watch Messi playing. I know how to deal with him. On the other hand, I wonder what they are going to do to counter us.
"Let them worry about us."
That is the ultimate level of cocksure pre-match predictions, but Belgium's performance was certainly good enough to engender that kind of confidence.
After three drab, uninspiring group games that did little to support the pre-tournament predictions, the real Belgium came flying out of the traps against the United States. So slow in the final third against Algeria, Russia and South Korea, with Divock Origi up front they looked a very different proposition.
Wilmots' handling of Romelu Lukaku has been a clear success as well.
The Chelsea striker lacked urgency and mobility in his two truncated appearances and was dropped for the next two games.
When he reappeared from the bench in extra time against the United States, he changed the game.
The tired legs of the American defence had no chance of stopping him. Perhaps he needed to be brought down a peg or two. If his response continues against Argentina, Belgium will have no problems.
Belgium's strength was the versatility of their attacking.
Juergen Klinsmann couldn't lock down a supply line because the danger came from everywhere.
Origi's pace through the centre was almost unplayable. On the flanks, Jan Vertonghen, hitherto identified as a weak link, overlapped Eden Hazard to great effect.
In the second half, Marouane Fellaini pushed up as a second striker to create an aerial threat.
And if the Americans could deal with all of that, then they had to work out the movement of Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. It was too much for them and Tim Howard's heroics only masked the gulf between the two teams.
All this is in stark contrast to Argentina who have struggled to create one productive seam of chances.
Alejandro Sabella has two objectives and neither of them is working. The first is to feed Messi at every opportunity, an obvious aim that can be neutralised with two good defensive midfielders.
Switzerland, with Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami, kept Messi contained for almost 120 minutes. Almost.
Argentina's other ploy is to hurl crosses into the box, hoping to find Gonzalo Higuain. But the Napoli man is in wretched form and hasn't been able to take advantage.
Like their rivals Brazil, Argentina are very much less than the sum of their parts.
There is great talent here, quite obviously, but unless Sabella can find a way to draw it all together, they will not win the World Cup.
Furthermore, the Belgians have "The Tarantula" to keep the Argentinians at bay. Thibaut Courtois, who plays for Atletico Madrid, has not allowed Barcelona's Messi to score in their last seven meetings (see side story).
RISE OF MESSI
In the past, Messi has been identified as the failing factor, a superstar who cannot replicate his club form for his country.
That can no longer be used as an excuse. Messi has turned up. It's everyone else who is letting the side down, including the coach.
Argentina were fortunate to get past Switzerland, reliant on one moment of magic from their talisman, much as they were against Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria.
They cannot expect to be so fortunate every week.
Belgium have also been disappointing, but at least there is evidence now that they have found their feet. There is nothing to suggest that Argentina have done the same.
It has been 24 years since the South Americans progressed past the quarter-final stage.
If that run is to end tonight, it's going to take a vast improvement.
The Belgium web is tightening around the Argentinians. Wilmots is right to be confident. Argentina are there for the taking.
Tarantula out to smother the flea
If Argentina's Lionel Messi has anything to worry about at this World Cup it should be a goalkeeper known as "The Tarantula" he has failed to score against in their last seven clashes.
Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Messi will have the latest of their epic battles when their countries meet in the World Cup quarter-finals in Salvador tonight.
It is almost a David and Goliath tale. The question is, which is which?
The 1.99 -metre-tall Courtois towers over his 1.69m rival Messi.
The Argentinian winner of four Ballon d'Or awards is a giant among attackers though, scoring four times already at this World Cup.
Courtois is known as "The Tarantula" because foes believe he has eight arms to keep all angles covered. And he has done it with style.
Still only 22, Courtois racked up his 100th career clean sheet against Russia in their Group H match last week. He played a key role in Atletico Madrid's Spanish title-winning campaign this season, which is why his parent club Chelsea say they want him back for 2014-15.
It is the matches between Messi's Barcelona and Courtois' Atletico that makes their rivalry so special.
In their first meeting in September, 2011, Messi humiliated Courtois with a stunning hat-trick in a 5-0 win at Barcelona's Nou Camp. The following February, a quick free-kick flummoxed the Belgian to secure victory in the return Spanish championship game. In December 2012, there was another Messi brace in a 4-1 win.
Since then there have been seven games in the Champions League, La Liga and the Spanish Super Cup where Courtois and fate have denied the Argentinian, leading Atletico to the Spanish title and Champions League final at Barca's expense.
In two games, Messi went off injured. He slammed a penalty against the crossbar in another and in May this year got the ball past Courtois but was ruled offside.
Courtois remains confident of keeping up his spider's web protection.
"As soon as (Messi) finds a way to shoot, he will shoot, so the only thing you can do as a goalkeeper is concentrate at all times," Courtois told ESPN television in an interview this week.- AFP.