Lionel Messi and Argentina are three games away from winning the World Cup, but against the Netherlands they will face their toughest test of the tournament so far.
Friday’s quarter-final at Lusail Stadium is an interesting match, not least because of the World Cup history between the two teams.
They last met in the semi-finals eight years ago – a goalless tie which Argentina eventually won on penalties – and have played two other knockout games before that: the quarter-finals 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 protagonists remain from the 2014 meeting. For the Netherlands, Louis van Gaal is back as manager and veteran left-back Daley Blind is still an integral part of the national team, while Messi remains Argentina’s talisman and strongest attacking threat.
Much of the focus, as usual, will be on 35-year-old Messi, who has been the focus of Argentina’s best moments of the tournament so far.
With three goals – including a superb strike against Mexico and a brilliant performance against Australia – and one assist from four games, Messi is the heart of this Argentina team, even in the twilight of his career.
“At this point in his career, he is an aging genius,” sports scientist Simon Brundish told CNN Sport. “He doesn’t have the capacity to make that run [Paulo] Dybala in the team will do it, but he is a genius and he will win your match.”
Indeed, attention has been drawn to the amount Messi has gone through during Argentina’s games at the World Cup – slowly working himself into space before diving in to create goalscoring opportunities.
Against Australia in the round of 16, for example, he walked 4,752.7 meters – 300 meters more than anyone else on the pitch, according to FIFA.
“If you look at Messi clearly, you’ll see him standing in space so much when the opposition gets the ball,” explained Brundish, adding that the amount Messi walks also speaks to Argentina’s defensive organization.
“Argentina set up their system around it without getting involved in the press,” Brundish said. “They’re not a pressing team… It’s never been part of Messi’s game and his role doesn’t involve that.”
Both sides suffered setbacks in Qatar – Argentina’s shock loss against Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands’ draw against Ecuador – and both hope to reach the final four for the first time since 2014.
The Netherlands looked impressive through Cody Gakpo, who has three goals to his name this World Cup, and Memphis Depay, who capped off a great performance against the USA in the last 16.
But Argentina will hope its playmaker can add to his goal tally by unlocking the Netherlands’ three-back defence.
“Leo surprises you every day with what he does,” midfielder Alexis Mac Allister told reporters on Thursday. “You can see he’s happy and, for us, that’s very important.”
But this Argentine team is more than just Messi. Midfielder Enzo Fernández and striker Julián Álvarez had impressive campaigns and goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez made some important saves, especially against Australia.
“It’s not about me, or the Netherlands, against Messi, it’s about the Netherlands against Argentina,” Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk told reporters this week, according to Reuters. “They are a great team with great players, and we have to play well in all parts of the game.”
Having lost three previous World Cup finals and failing to qualify for the 2018 tournament, van Gaal’s side are likely to feel unfinished business in Qatar.
Data insight company Nielsen has Argentina as favorites in the quarter-finals with a 58% chance of advancing, but neither side has had the chance to test themselves against one of the tournament’s top teams.
But that will change. The winner of Friday’s match will likely face Brazil in the semi-finals, although the five-time champions will have to overcome Croatia in their own quarter-final first.
Brazil vs. Croatia: 10 a.m. ET at Education City Stadium
Argentina vs Netherlands: 2pm ET at Lusail Stadium
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC