Lionel Messi and Argentina will face their stiffest challenge yet when they take on a young, hungry Belgian team in the quarter-final of the 2014 World Cup on Saturday.
Neither team has looked like a truly dominant force so far in the tournament, but while the Albiceleste have relied heavily on their star forward to help them win matches, the Red Devils have been using a team-first approach that has seen the bulk of their goals come from the bench.
Belgium have little to lose—anything but a World Cup will be considered a disappointment for the Argentine team. The stakes will be incredibly high on Saturday, and this match promises to be a dramatic one.
Date: Saturday, July 5
Time: 5 p.m. BST/9 p.m. ET
Venue: Estadio Nacional, Brasilia
Both teams have won each and every one of their matches, but neither has looked particularly convincing in doing so.
Argentina needed last-minute goals to get past Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Algeria, and their defence got badly exposed in their exciting 3-2 win over Nigeria.
Similarly, Belgium needed two late goals to beat Algeria, waited until the final 20 minutes to score against South Korea and Russia and needed extra time to get past the United States.
The Red Devils did put together their finest performance yet against the USA, peppering Tim Howard's goal with shots and playing open, attacking football. With better finishing, the match could easily have ended with three or four Belgian goals in regulation, but finishing has traditionally been a concern for the Belgians.
Defensively things are rock-solid, with Daniel van Buyten en Jan Vertonghen looking particularly impressive so far.
Argentina have failed to look good on the defensive side of the ball so far, and like Belgium, finishing has been a problem. Messi's form has been spectacular, however, and Belgium have yet to face a forward of his caliber.
It is a big game for this generation. It is very important. We can make history. I hope we can win. We know the best player in the world is in this team, but we are not afraid. We can win.
[...]It is the difference [though] they have Angel di Maria as well.
When looking at the multitude of attacking options Argentina have at their disposal, it's easy to see why they'll still be favourites going into this match. Sergio Aguero's availability is still a question mark, but even without him, the wealth of attacking options is brutal.
They've yet to shine, however, and Gonzalo Higuain in particular has been wasteful in front of goal. Belgium will give Argentina more space to work with than any other team before, but they also field the best defensive unit the Albiceleste have faced so far.
Via FIFA's Castrol Index, Belgium field two of the five highest-rated defenders in the tournament so far. Argentina will be without full-back Marcos Rojo, who is suspended following his yellow card against Algeria.
Argentina have experience on their side, and if their attacking unit finally decides to show up, they should have the quality to take advantage of Belgium's offensive-minded approach.
But the Red Devils are very dangerous on the break, don't give away many chances and have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world in Thibaut Courtois. If some of the key contributors can recover from the cramps they endured during the round-of-16 match, per HLN's Kristof Terreur, an upset could be in the cards.
Lionel Messi, here we come! De Bruyne and Witsel have cramps after an absolutely magnificent game.— Kristof Terreur (@HLNinEngeland) July 1, 2014
All will depend on whether or not Messi's supporting cast finally decides to show up. The Belgians have never lost a competitive match with Courtois in goal and are unbeaten in their last 14, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Belgium takes on the USA in the Round of 16. The Belgians are unbeaten in their last 13 competitive matches (11-0-2) #BELvsUSA— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 1, 2014
This will not be an easy out for the Albiceleste, and with the Red Devils having already achieved their goal of the quarter-finals, the onus will be on Argentina to perform.
Prediction: Argentina 1-0 Belgium