World Cup blog - Argentina and Belgium under pressure
Each game has its obvious favourites, but the final round of World Cup last 16 games will show us two very different sides both attempting to cope with very different home pressures and expectation, Jonathan Nightingale writes…
For a country that has produced some of the greats of the game - Diego Maradona, Javier Zanetti, Gabriel Batistuta and Lionel Messi - Argentina have lacked the success that perhaps they should have achieved over the years.
And yet, come every World Cup, they will be amongst the favourites to take the competition by the scruff of the neck, despite only winning it twice in their history.
With one of the world’s best players in your side you will always have a chance. But Messi has been criticised for not performing for his country. Ask Argentineans who they would prefer, and the majority plump for Maradona. Messi is not adored by his country the same way he is at Barcelona. Many feel this is his time to really show he can go down as one of the greats.
His response has been little short of excellent. Argentina’s top scorer with four goals - some exquisite finishes - and the 26-year-old captains the side to boot. Messi can be seen driving his team forwards with magical trademark runs. His form will be key to any potential success - and he will be as desperate as any to add a World Cup to the 21 pieces of silverware captured with Barcelona.
Argentina’s position as one of the favourites isn’t all about Messi though - the supporting cast aren’t bad either. Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain are all big players and top draw talent. Many of them will have been in the position of expectation before and know they have to deliver. There is no reason this side cannot make a real impact on the competition, something they haven’t been able to achieve since finishing runners-up in 1990.
Belgium, on the other hand, are attempting to deal with an all together different kind of expectation. Currently a country experiencing its ‘golden generation’, they have players in almost every position playing for top clubs across Europe. In fact, 12 players alone are gracing the Premier League right now while Kevin De Bruyne has previously plied his trade at Chelsea, and the injured Christian Benteke unable to make the tournament.
Many fancy them as the dark horses of the World Cup - players such as Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku possess the talent to hurt any defence, with the back line lead by Vincent Kompany a solid unit.
But we have seen the Belgians make a stuttering start as they qualified from Group H - unconvincing, unpredictable and underwhelming. And yet, they made it through with three wins out of three without really getting out of second gear. This could serve as a warning to opponents - this Belgium side are capable of much more.
Fans at home will expect Belgium to take the game to teams, imposing their fast attacking play on defences, and possibly go all the way to the final. But they have found goals hard to come by, netting only late in games.
While late goals can deliver glory, it shows that Belgium have struggled to break down teams despite their obvious talent. And this could prove costly.
Belgium are yet to come up against a top side or a favourite to win the tournament. United States have emerged shining from the group of death. Their organised unit will be a stern test for the Belgians, who must find their form if they are to go further.
Many of the players will not have experienced such expectation for their country before, and playing with fear could be their downfall.
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