We’re getting down to the nitty gritty. Today is the last day of the World Cup that will feature multiple games. When the dust settles will traditional world powers Argentina and the Netherlands join Brazil and Germany in the semifinals or will Costa Rica or Belgium provide us with some variety?
Argentina vs. Belgium
Help please: Without veering too much into hyperbole, Lionel Messi has been the whole damn show for Argentina … with a cameo contribution from Angel Di Maria vs. Switzerland. Although Argentina has four wins from its four games in Brazil thus far, it’s hardly looked impressive during any extended stretch, relying on Messi time-after-time to play the hero — creating a tournament-high 18 chances in the process. Alejandro Sabella’s gameplan — or more accurately “game plan” — vs. Switzerland in the Round of 16 was lobbing crosses from the flanks toward the heads of Swiss defenders until Messi rides to the rescue. This plan probably isn’t going to work with Vincent Kompany & Co. in the middle of the Belgian defense.
Belgium represents the sternest test for Argentina so far at the tournament. Pitted against an equally-talented opponent might make the game more even or back-and-forth, meaning Argentina won’t be forced to play 75 percent of the game camped around an overmatched opponents’ penalty area — something it isn’t comfortable doing. If the game opens up, Argentina has the runners to get behind the slower Belgium fullbacks.
Ready for the spotlight?: Belgium was a darkhorse, but it isn’t any more. Three years ago, yeah, talking up Belgium as a contender was new and surprising. Now? Belgium is pretty much where we all expected it to be, despite the Tim Howard’s best efforts to keep the Red Devils from advancing to the quarterfinals. Belgium was so-so in the group stage, but put together a performance vs. the U.S. that in most cases would have produced an easy 3-0 win.
Manager Marc Wilmots has all his pieces in place, his only question is whether or not to start 19-year-old Divock Origi again, saving Romelu Lukaku as a super-sub or not (Origi starts vs. Argentina). Depending on how Wilmots approaches this, the roles could be reversed from Tuesday with Belgium penned in deep against a sustained Argentina attack. Unlike the United States, Belgium has the speed and skill to sting on the counter attack through Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin De Bruyne. At times Belgium’s lack of tournament experience reared its head when it couldn’t kill off the game vs. the United States. Belgium would be wise to avoid getting drawn into a raggedy streetfight-type game, which Argentina could do to rattle the Red Devils.
Outlook: Once you get past Messi, Belgium might have the next eight or nine best players on the field. The Argentina defense has looked disorganized (Martin Demichelis starts today, although he’s a lead-foot, his positional awareness is still sharp) and keeper Sergio Romero is a blunder waiting to happen. Belgium appears to be peaking at the right time, using its depth to plug holes and find fresh legs. That said, now that Neymar is injured for the rest of the tournament and James Rodriguez has been sent home to flirt with Real Madrid, it’s time for Messi to assume his rightful place as the best player at the World Cup, in a game that should be open and full of chances for both sides. … Argentina 2, Belgium 1.
The Netherlands vs. Costa Rica
Keep it going?: Costa Rica — the giants of CONCACAF. Who knew? Jorge Luis Pinto’s underdog team has been one of the best stories at the World Cup, winning Group D and then defeating Greece in penalties. Costa Rica’s three-man central defensive line has only allowed one goal in open play — Greece’s sloppy 91st minute equalizer. However one of those players — Oscar Duarte — is out through yellow card suspension. Standout keeper Keylor Navas dealt with nagging injuries all week. Costa Rica also is coming off that grueling extra time game, where it played nearly an hour with 10 men. Despite all those red flags, given the resilience Los Tico have shown in Brazil, the Netherlands will have to earn it. Christian Bolaños, Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell are quality attackers with the capability to question the Netherlands defense which looked awfully shaky at times vs. Mexico.
The Villain: Arjen Robben is a lot of things. A diver? Maybe. A sulking, injury-prone malcontent? At times. A singularly unique talent in the modern world of soccer? Assuredly yes. Chances are you don’t “like” Robben and his antics, but it’s hard to look away when he gets the ball on his toe with a full head of steam. Sports need characters, ones you can root for or against with as much ease. Given how his theatrical contact with Rafa Marquez resulted in the game-winning penalty for the Dutch in extra time vs. Mexico, how much embellishment referee Ravshan Irmatov allows Robben to get away with — and or how much Costa Rica is able to be physical with him, is almost as important as anything else in this match.
Outlook: On paper this seems fairly straightforward. The Dutch will control the game and Costa Rica will have to defend with discipline, trying to break on the counter. Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal won’t be able to replace Nigel de Jong’s wall-winning skills in the midfield — de Jong’s reputation aside, it’s a big loss for the Dutch. Could van Gaal go really crazy and use Klaas Jan-Huntelaar as a target center forward instead of Robin van Persie? After a scare vs. another CONCACAF team, the Netherlands won’t overlook Costa Rica. … Netherlands 1, Costa Rica 0.