Argentina take on Belgium's 'golden generation'
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Argentina captain Lionel Messi is hoping to secure his spot among football’s all-time greats by leading his side to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in over two decades, but Belgium’s acclaimed "golden generation" is out to trip him up.
Argentina and Belgium meet for their quarter-final match on Saturday in the capital city of Brasilia, both touting perfect records in the tournament thus far.
Belgium’s Red Devils are also out to prove their worth after having been widely praised as the strongest band of players the country has assembled in decades, one with a chance of finally seizing World Cup glory.
There is football history between the two sides, with Belgium perhaps eager for a settling of scores.
Belgium beat Argentina 1-0 in the opening match of the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
The two clashed again four years later at the World Cup in Mexico, but this time in the semi-finals. Football icon Diego Maradona, at the prime of his career, scored twice to eliminate the European team.
Argentina went on to raise the 1986 World Cup trophy, while Belgium finished fourth in the competition overall.
The Messi show
Argentinian football triumphs of yore have loomed large over a squad that has struggled in recent years, with the exception of Barcelona’s star striker Lionel Messi.
The spiritual successor of Maradona has won four Ballon d’Or (world player of the year) awards, six Spanish La Liga championships and three Champions League titles with the Catalan powerhouse, and an Olympic gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Games with Argentina.
Messi’s missing accolade, especially when making comparisons to Maradona, is the World Cup trophy.
Argentina, tipped as one of the favourites from the start of the competition, have collectively performed below expectations even if they have yet to drop a match.
Messi, who has played in Spain since he was 13 years old, is winning the hearts of once estranged countrymen after sinking in four goals in as many games in Brazil. But the rest of his teammates have done little to impress fans.
“Messi is very alone. The team never changes its pace, and there is no movement on the attack,” a worried Maradona told Venezuelan television this week.
The showdown against Belgium will give Argentina the chance to show critics that the team still deserves respect.
Looking toward the future
Belgium arrive in the quarter-finals after beating the USA 2-1 in a thrilling, extra-time game on July 1.
The group boasts a solid line-up combining youthful talent and reliable experience. It includes Chelsea attacking midfielder Eden Hazard, Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany, and a handful of other players who have performed brilliantly in England’s Premier League.
The national team failed to qualify for the two previous World Cups, but has raised the hopes of 11 million fans back home by storming through the World Cup qualifiers, rising to number five in FIFA world rankings at one point.
“We can write a page of history, and the players know it,” Belgian coach Marc Wilmots told reporters at a press conference on the eve of the match against Argentina.
“We remember Maradona who took Argentina to victory [in the 1982 semi-finals]. But that was long ago. We are concentrating on the future and what this new generation can achieve,” he added.