Watching Argentina in this World Cup has been a brutal, downbeat psycho-drama. Whether Lionel Messi could win them the trophy was the question before the tournament kicked off, but nobody expected him to be so dominant, or his team-mates to be so pathetically dependent.
Not only has Messi scored virtually all Argentina’s goals; he’s scored them virtually unaided. Players who fetch tens of millions at club level, like Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria, have been tense and useless, as if they daren’t upstage the lead actor in their play. The astoundingly poor match against Switzerland was like watching a Millwall v Reading clash in the relegation marshes of the Championship, but one in which Reading have inexplicably signed the best player in the world. Even the last-minute winner was only stroked home by Di Maria after a brilliant run by Messi had placed the ball inch-perfectly on his boot.
There are strong rumours that Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella is a patsy, with Messi really running the tactical show. Pablo Zabaleta has admitted that the entire Argentina game plan is: give it to Messi. So can he beat Belgium on his own?
If the Belgians can shackle Messi – other teams have surrounded him with three men at all times, almost successfully – they look far superior elsewhere. Hazard, Mertens and de Bruyne are starting to purr as an attacking-midfield trio, Romelu Lukaku’s goal against USA might be a sign that he’s shaken off his World Cup nerves, Thibaut Courtois is commanding in goal, and Vincent Kompany has the look of a man who has simply decided his team shall win the cup. That attitude is starting to pervade the squad. None of them has any previous tournament experience but, in that game-of-the-tournament against the Americans, they won as much through grit and pragmatism as youthful flair, refusing to lose faith even when it looked like their nervous finishing might see them eliminated.
Messi is still the problem. Other opponents have freely admitted they fear him, and have abandoned their own attacking ambitions. If the Belgians are too confident and try to go toe to toe, man to man, they could be undone. There’s also the question of who marks him: Axel Witsel might be OK but Eden Hazard won’t naturally track back to help, and the player who normally patrols that zone is the tree-like Marouane Fellaini. Messi v Fellaini would only have one winner.