Football

Messi-Courtois rivalry continues

La Liga rivals renew duel for a place in the semi-finals

QUARTER-FINAL

ARGENTINA v BELGIUM

(Tomorrow, 11.59pm, Sing Tel mio TV Ch 141 & StarHub TV Ch 223)

They have faced each other 10 times in the last three club seasons in Spain.

Argentina captain Lionel Messi and Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois are set to renew their rivalry tomorrow night (Singapore time) on the international stage, as their countries face off in the World Cup quarter-finals, with the winner of the duel likely to decide the outcome of the fixture.

Messi already has four goals and one assist in Brazil, while the lanky shot-stopper has been solid, rather than spectacular, making 11 saves in Belgium's four games, though he did produce a brilliant block to deny US forward Clint Dempsey late in their last-16 clash.

The Argentinian plays for La Liga giants Barcelona, while Atletico Madrid's Courtois, 22, has been on loan from Chelsea since 2011.

Messi came out firmly on top in his early encounters with Courtois in Spain, netting six goals in their opening three games - including a brilliant hat-trick in the first meeting, a La Liga match in September 2011 that Barca won 5-0.

The third of Messi's treble left the young goalkeeper on the seat of his pants, after the four-time World Player of the Year cracked the ball straight between his legs from a tight angle on the left of the penalty area.

FOOLISH

Messi made Courtois look foolish again for his next goal, a free-kick in a 2-1 La Liga victory for Barca at Atletico's Calderon Stadium in February 2012.

The Belgian was still adjusting his wall and out of position when Messi, who had not asked for the Atletico players to retreat and did not need to wait for the referee to restart play, clipped the ball over the barrier, and Courtois could only watch helplessly as it sailed into the far corner of the net.

Courtois must have been wondering what had hit him when Messi struck a double in a 4-1 home win for Barca in December 2012, but that was the last time the Argentinian found the net against the Madrid club.

INJURED

He went off injured with about 20 minutes left in their La Liga game in May last year, before they faced each other six times last season across the Spanish Super Cup, domestic league and the Champions League, and Messi was unable to add to his tally.

He came closest to scoring in the return leg of the Super Cup, when he struck a penalty against the crossbar, but Courtois and his teammates otherwise kept him at bay as Barca ended the season without major silverware for the first time in six years.

After an indifferent season by Messi's high standards, during which he missed two months through injury, the diminutive forward looks close to his scintillating best in Brazil.

The 27-year-old is the bookmakers' favourite to win the Golden Boot for leading scorer, and the Golden Ball for player of the tournament.

He is one goal behind Colombia's James Rodriguez on the top-scorers' list, and appears to be carrying a mediocre Argentina side in much the same way as his predecessor Diego Maradona did in his heyday.

Whether Messi can help them beat the Belgians, who lost 2-0 to Argentina in the 1986 semi-finals with Maradona netting both goals, will depend on him breaking his unusual scoring drought against one of the most promising young goalkeepers in the game.

Jean-Marie Pfaff was in goal for Belgium for the match in Mexico nearly three decades ago, but was unable to thwart Maradona.

And current coach Marc Wilmots knows the scale of the task facing Courtois tomorrow.

"It's clear that it will be very difficult for us if Messi is on form, but we have found the balance to be able to irritate Argentina," he told a news conference on Thursday.

The winners will play Holland or Costa Rica in the last four. - Reuters.


It’s clear that it will be very difficult for us if Messi is on form, but we have found the balance to be able to irritate Argentina.

— Belgium coach Marc Wilmots

Boost for Belgium defence

Belgium received a boost ahead of their quarter-final clash against Argentina tomorrow night (Singapore time) as two key defenders returned from injury this morning.

Centre back Thomas Vermaelen, who missed his side's last two games due to a right thigh strain, was among 13 players who took part in a training session at Belgium's base in Sao Paulo.

Another group of players, those who started in the 2-1 win over the US on Tuesday, participated in a bike ride.

Also, captain Vincent Kompany (above) was "recovering well" from a groin problem that forced him to sit out his side's final group game against South Korea last week, according to coach Marc Wilmots.

"He looks to have made a very good recovery," said Wilmots of his key centre back, who did not train before their 2-1 extra-time win over the US.

Kompany got through the two-hour last-16 drama at the Fonte Nova Arena, but at times seemed bothered by the injury.

Speaking after the match, Wilmots was not sure if the injury had flared up but has since told reporters Kompany was on track to feature in the last eight.

However, midfielder Mousa Dembele is continuing to undergo treatment after receiving a knock against South Korea, while two defenders - Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld - were struggling with small niggles.

Wilmots said: "That stands to reason after the exertions against the US, but our medical staff have done an outstanding job and will sort it out."

Belgium fly to Brasilia this morning in preparation for their last-eight encounter against Argentina at the Mane Garrincha National Stadium tomorrow. - Wire Services.

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