Argentina vs Holland: Lionel Messi ‘aging genius’ looks to inspire La Celeste
Lionel Messi and Argentina are three games away from winning World Championshipbut against Netherlands they will face their toughest test yet in the tournament.
Friday quarter final at Lusail Stadium is a compelling match-up, not least because of the WC history between the two teams.
They last met in the semi-finals eight years ago – a goalless game which Argentina eventually won on penalties – and prior to that they have contested two other knockout matches: a quarter-final in 1998 – best remembered for Dennis Bergkamp’s sensational winning goal – and the final in 1978 when Argentina won the World Cup for the first time.
Several key figures return from the 2014 meeting. For the Netherlands, Louis van Gaal is back as manager and veteran left-back Daley Blind remains a key part of the national team, while Messi remains Argentina’s talisman and most potent attacking threat.
Much of the spotlight will, as always, be on the 35-year-old Messi, who has been central to Argentina’s best moments in the tournament so far.
With three goals – including a superb strike against Mexico and a well-worked move against Australia – and one assist from four games, Messi is the heartbeat of this Argentina team, even in the twilight of his career.
“At this point in his career, he’s an aging genius,” sports analyst Simon Brundish told CNN Sport. “He doesn’t have the capacity to run it [Paulo] Dybala in the team would do that, but he’s a genius and he’s going to win your games.”
In fact, attention has been drawn to the amount Messi has gone during Argentina’s games at the World Cup – slowly working himself into space before bursting into life into fashion scoring opportunities.
Against Australia in the round of 16, for example, he walked 4,752.7 meters – 300 meters more than anyone else on the field, according to FIFA.
“If you watch Messi explicitly, you will see that he has stood in space so much when the opposition has the ball,” Brundish explained, adding that the amount Messi goes also speaks to Argentina’s defensive organisation.
“Argentina set up their system around him not being involved in the press,” Brundish said. “They’re not a high-pressing team anyway … It’s never been part of Messi’s game and his role doesn’t involve it.”
Both teams have had blips in Qatar – Argentina’s surprise defeat to Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands’ draw with Ecuador – and both are hoping to reach the final four for the first time since 2014.
Holland have looked impressive going forward through Cody Gakpo, who has three goals to his name this World Cup, and Memphis Depay, who capped off a wonderful move against the USA in the round of 16.
But Argentina will be hoping its master playmaker can add to his tally by unlocking Holland’s three-at-the-back defence.
“Leo surprises you every day with the things he does,” midfielder Alexis MacAllister told reporters on Thursday. “You can see he’s happy and for us that’s very important.”
Yet this Argentina team is more than just Messi. Midfielder Enzo Fernández and striker Julián Álvarez have had impressive campaigns and goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez has produced some crucial saves, particularly against Australia.
“It’s not about me or Holland against Messi, it’s about Holland against Argentina,” Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk told reporters this week, according to Reuters. “They are a great team with great players and we will have to do well in all departments of the game.”
Having lost three previous World Cup finals and failing to qualify for the 2018 tournament, van Gaal’s side will likely feel a sense of unfinished business in Qatar.
Data insight company Nielsen have Argentina as favorites in the quarter-finals with a 58% chance of progressing, but neither side has had the chance to test themselves against one of the tournament’s top teams.
But that is about to change. The winner of Friday’s match is likely to face Brazil in the semi-finals, although the five-time champions must first get past Croatia in their own quarter-final.
Brazil vs. Croatia: at 10 ET at Education City Stadium
Argentina vs. Netherlands: 2 p.m. ET at Lusail Stadium
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