By Brian Homewood
One of the most powerful and enduring World Cup photographs depicts Diego Maradona in possession of the ball, confronted by a posse of six panic-stricken Belgian defenders.
Thirty-two years after the picture was taken, Lionel Messi is set to sow similar terror into the Belgian defence as they face Argentina in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final in Brasilia.
Argentina are attempting to pass the quarter-finals stage for the first time since 1990 and their supporters are wondering whether Messi can take his side all the way to the title, just as Diego Maradona did for Argentina in 1986.
The Belgian connection has led to more comparisons between Maradona and Messi and the extent to which they carry their respective teams.
Although Belgium went on to win the match in which the photograph was taken, Maradona came back to haunt them four years later in 1986 when he scored both goals in a 2-0 semi-final win for Argentina, the second with an amazing run right through the centre of their defence.
Saturday’s meeting at the Brasilia national stadium, in the dusty, arid centre of Brazil, will be the first since that game in Mexico City.
Messi’s brilliance has been enough to get Argentina past Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria and Switzerland, but the Belgians, who are improving with every game, are a different proposition altogether.
Argentina will need some greater variety in attack, and maybe get more players forward, if they are to end their 24-year wait for a semi-final place.
Their second round win over Switzerland was basically a win for persistence when Angel Di Maria finally broke through at the end of extra-time, putting the finishing touch to a brilliant Messi run.
Alejandro Sabella’s team had spent two hours trying to break down the resolute Swiss defence with basically the same method which involved Messi, Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi running at defenders, then sending a cross into the area for the head of Gonzalo Higuain.
There were precious few quick-passing exchanges to open up the Swiss and the midfield pair of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago were an almost entirely destructive presence.
This meant that the over-worked Messi had to start most moves himself, often coming into his own half to pick up the ball.
With fullbacks Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo often staying put, Argentina found themselves outnumbered by Swiss defenders although they avoided getting caught out on the break.
Messi’s form has been a stark contrast to his ineffective fellow forwards. Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio have yet to score, Sergio Aguero has already gone home because of injury and Di Maria was guilty of giving the ball away routinely against the Swiss before his goal.
Belgium, making their first quarter-final appearance since 1986, are cranking into gear and followed their three sluggish group stage wins with a far more impressive display against the United States in a breathless second-round match.
Coach Marc Wilmots said his side had already learned a lot from watching the Swiss.
“We are not working on Messi, we’ll be challenging Argentina as a block. Switzerland showed how to play against them, they had a very good game,” he said
“I saw an Argentina side playing with three centre backs, two fullbacks pressing up high and Di Maria given a free reign. But I also saw a lack of balance at times.”
Defender Vincent Kompany believed his team could exploit Argentina’s willingness to push forward. “If they decide to play their usual attacking game, we’ll have a pretty good chance against them,” he said.