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 quarterfinal at the Lusail Stadium is a compelling match-up, not least because of the World Cup history between the two teams.
They last met in the semifinals eight years ago – a goalless game that Argentina ultimately won on penalties – and prior to that have contested two other knockout games: a quarterfinal 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 encounter. For the Netherlands, Louis van Gaal has returned as manager and veteran left-back Daley Blind is still a key part of the national team, while Messi remains Argentina’s talisman and most potent attacking threat.
Much of the spotlight, as ever, will be on the 35-year-old Messi, who has been central to Argentina’s best moments of 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 scientist Simon Brundish told CNN Sport. “He doesn’t have the capacity to do the running that [Paulo] Dybala in the team would do, but he’s a genius and he’s going to win you games.”
Indeed, attention has been drawn to the amount Messi has walked during Argentina’s games at the World Cup – slowly working himself into space before bursting into life to 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 pitch, according to FIFA.
“If you watch Messi explicitly, you would see he’s stood in space so much when the opposition have got the ball,” Brundish explained, adding that the amount Messi walks also speaks to Argentina’s defensive organization.
“Argentina set up their system around him not being involved in the press,” said Brundish. “They’re not a high pressing team anyway … It’s never been part of Messi’s game and his role doesn’t involve that.”
More than Messi
Both teams have had blips in Qatar – Argentina a surprise defeat against Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands a draw against Ecuador – and both are hoping to reach the final four for the first time since 2014.
The Netherlands have looked impressive going forward through Cody Gakpo, who has three goals to his name this World Cup, and Memphis Depay, who finished off a wonderful move against the USA in the last 16.
But Argentina will be hopeful its master playmaker can add to his goals tally by unlocking the Netherlands’ three-at-the-back defense.
“Leo surprises you every day with the things he does,” midfielder Alexis Mac Allister 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 the Netherlands, against Messi, it’s about the Netherlands against Argentina,” the Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk told reporters this week, according to Reuters. “They are a fantastic team with fantastic players, and we are going to have to do well in all departments of the match.”
Having lost three previous World Cup finals and failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament, van Gaal’s team will likely feel a sense of unfinished business in Qatar.
Data insight company Nielsen has Argentina as favorite in the quarterfinal with a 58% chance of progressing, but neither side has had the chance to test itself against one of the tournament’s top teams.
But that’s about to change. The winner of Friday’s game will likely face Brazil in the semifinals, although the five-time champion will have to get past Croatia in its own quarterfinal first.
Brazil vs. Croatia: 10 a.m. ET at the Education City Stadium
Argentina vs. Netherlands: 2 p.m. ET at the Lusail Stadium
How to watch
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC