Argentina will once again turn to Lionel Messi for inspiration when they tackle star-studded Belgium in Brasilia on Saturday in a FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final haunted by ghosts of yesteryear. Victory would take Argentina into the last four - where either Netherlands or Costa Rica will await - for only the second time since they last won the tournament in 1986, beating Belgium in the semi-finals en route.
But despite results living up to expectations - Argentina have won all four of their games to date - performances have not, and the team's dependence on Messi has been cited as the key factor. With four goals in three matches, the Barcelona megastar was his side's saviour in the group phase, while in the 1-0 extra-time victory over Switzerland in the last 16 he seemed the only player capable of making a difference.
Diego Maradona was scathing of the team's performance, warning coach Alejandro Sabella that he is destined for "catastrophe" if he cannot alleviate some of the burden on the team's outstanding player. Argentina's assault on the World Cup was supposed to be spearheaded by their 'Fantastic Four' attackers, but Messi is the only one who has lived up to his billing so far.
Sergio Aguero is a serious doubt for the Belgium game due to a muscle injury, Gonzalo Higuain is still waiting for his first goal, and despite scoring the winner against the Swiss, Angel Di Maria has delighted and exasperated in equal measure.
Facing accusations that his side are overly reliant on their number 10, Sabella said that "Argentina have always had a dependence on Messi". It is likely to be no different against Belgium and Messi's task will be rendered doubly difficult by the fact that the opposition goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois of Atletico Madrid, has kept him at bay for seven games in succession.
The Messi-Courtois duel is one of many subplots in a game that carries strong echoes of the last World Cup encounter between the teams in Mexico City, which Argentina won 2-0 thanks to a glorious Maradona brace.
Belgium's team ethic
Then, as now, Argentina were dependent on the brilliance of one prodigiously gifted player, whereas Belgium's success was built upon the emergence of an exceptionally talented generation of players.
While the Belgian side of 1986 boasted the razor-sharp creative instincts of Enzo Scifo, the current team can call upon Eden Hazard, but the 23-year-old is yet to fully catch fire in Brazil. Although he came up with crucial and timely assists in the group-phase wins over Algeria and Russia, the Chelsea winger is yet to score.
However, coach Marc Wilmots is adamant that Belgium do not have dependency issues of their own. "When the opponent lets him, he's dangerous, but it's the same thing with (Dries) Mertens and (Kevin) De Bruyne," he said.
"Eden might be picked out by the international press as the star of the squad, but what I see is that Belgium are a block who don't depend on the performances of a single player."
Wilmots has vowed to exploit a "lack of balance" in Argentina's team and he has been aided by the news that captain Vincent Kompany should be fit to start despite an ongoing groin problem. With Aguero unlikely to recover in time, Ezequiel Lavezzi is expected to continue in attack for Argentina at the Mane Garrincha National Stadium.
Marcos Rojo's suspension, meanwhile, means that unheralded left-back Jose Maria Basanta will be tasked with shackling the dangerous Mertens on Argentina's left flank. "Rojo is very good, but we have faith in Basanta too," said Sabella.