A View From Belgium’s Opposition: Argentina
Argentina, a bit like Belgium, have seemingly underwhelmed spectators at the World Cup despite winning every match. They are no strangers to being the favourites in every match, a fact which Belgium are only just coming to terms with, but do they feel that a South American World Cup teamed with such a strong core of players weighing them down with expectations?
Rupert Fryer: Not really. There was an optimism in Argentina ahead of the tournament, which was born out of three things: their qualification campaign, the draw, and Lionel Messi. Alejandro Sabella did what no Argentina coach had done before him and instantly find a way to get Barcelona-like performances out of Messi. He equalled Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 12 Argentina goals in a calendar year in Sabella’s first 12 months in the job. There were a couple of minor hiccups in qualification, but Argentina largely cruised. Confidence in the side then grew following a draw that not only left them a relatively straight-forward group and placed them in the ‘easy’ side of the tournament, but left them with very little travelling to do and playing all their group games in the Southern, cooler areas of Brazil.
Lionel Messi was often questioned for his performances, or lack of, in World Cups but he seems to be pulling his team along by the scruff of the neck at times. It’s undoubted that Messi is capable of moments of magic at the drop of a hat but will that be enough to see off a stingy Belgium side led by Vincent Kompany?
Rupert Fryer: If Argentina continue like they are, then it will have to be enough. Sabella slightly lost his nerve ahead of their opener and scrapped the 4-3-3 that had been so vital in Messi’s improvement for his country, reverting a 3-5-2 that had brought mixed results (including a 1-0 loss to Venezuela in qualification – the first time Argentina had ever been beaten by them). Sabella quickly realised his mistake and brought Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuain on at half-time in their opener against Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it wasn’t the sort of start from which they could really build momentum. There are two ways to look at Argentina thus far: the pessimist would say that they have seriously struggled and if Messi doesn’t save them, they are doomed; the optimist would suggest that with Messi in this sort of form surrounded by performances like we’ve seen from his teammates thus far, then the world is in real trouble once they click.
What is the view of Belgium in Argentina? In Europe they have quickly come to prominence due to their talented group of players coming through and now playing at the top level all around the continent but are they seen as anything special in South America or are they just a country standing in Argentina’s way perhaps seen as no better or worse than the Swiss they faced before them?
Rupert Fryer: They know that they face a real test. The majority of the Belgium players play their football in the Premier League, which is watched every weekend by football fans in Argentina. Belgium are certainly viewed as much stiffer competition than any of the sides Argentina have faced in Brazil so far. And of course they are hoping to see Messi replicate that wonderful goal Diego Maradona scored against the same opposition in 1986.
This will be Belgium’s first opponent from South America and also the first time they are recognised as outsiders. With Belgium’s lack of natural talent at either side of defence – they play two CB’s on the flanks in Alderweireld and Vertonghen – is this something Argentina are aware of and expect to exploit with ease. And what areas of Belgium do the Argentinians respect or maybe even fear?
Rupert Fryer: This Argentina side don’t play with great width, with only Di Maria wanting to get wide and put crosses into the box – everyone else (Messi, Aguero, Lavezzi) wants to come inside, so the likes of Alderweireld and Vertonghen won’t often find themselves one-on-one against genuine wing-play. There will certainly be some concern about the threat posed by Eden Hazard. Argentina have had serious problems in the full-back positions, and despite Pablo Zabaleta’s fine form for his country over the last couple of years, the complete lack of support often offered to the Manchester City defender, and to Marcos Rojo on the other flank, is certainly going to be a worry. If you want to get at this Argentina side, attacking the full-backs is certainly the way to do it. Sabella’s side suffer from the old ‘short blanket syndrome’: top-heavy, if they pull it up to cover their heads then their feet get cold; pull it down it cover their feet and their faces are frozen. In a 3-5-2 they lose the fluid attacking play – their greatest strength. In a 4-3-3 they reveal their weaknesses at the back.
We give our biggest thanks to Rupert for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. We appreciate having someone so well versed in South American football helping us with our World Cup feature at BeNeFoot.