Thibaut Courtois could yet emerge as decisive figure
Marouane Fellaini will be dangerous in the air on set-pieces but he may struggle on the ground against Lionel Messi
USA’s DeAndre Yedlin gives chase as Belgium’s Eden Hazard closes in on goal during their last-16 game. His coach, Marc Wilmots, will be looking for some inspiration from the Chelsea midfielder.
The football talk in Brazil this week has been all about emotion, and how the gladiators of the national team are struggling to control theirs.
You cannot switch on the television without seeing footage of a Brazilian warrior breaking down in helpless tears and people have started to worry that this is not a good sign.
The epidemic of weepiness has been traced to the intense pressure felt by the Brazilian players not to let their people down – a pressure which becomes particularly obvious immediately before kick-off, when everyone puts their arms around each other to sing the anthem and whip themselves into a nationalistic frenzy.
The Hymn of Brazil consists of the sort of sentimental lyric poetry that teenagers used to write before the invention of television, set to a theme that might have been swept up from Rossini’s cutting room floor. And yet the anthem does at least have some soaring, uptempo phrases of the sort that hyped-up footballers and supporters can really commit to.
There is no such problem with the Belgian national anthem. A typical example of 19th century nonsense that seeks to romanticise the motherly soil of the fatherland, the climax of La Brabançonne consists of the repeated refrain: “the king, the law, liberty!” which sounds more like a civil service oath than a national anthem.
So there is no risk that Belgium’s footballers will be blinking away patriotic tears as they kick off against Argentina in Brasília today. That is not to say that they will lack motivation. Fleming, Walloon, French, Dutch, German, even Belgian – whatever these players think they are, they will be united by an ambition that is a more powerful binding force than any imagined tribal allegiance.
Professional footballers are mostly in it for the money yet for even the greediest footballers, the World Cup is all about glory. The team that stops Lionel Messi from winning the World Cup will be resented by a fair share of the world’s population but they will be remembered by everybody.
Team’s intentionBelgium’s coach, Marc Wilmots, spoke during the week of his team’s intention to write new pages in the history of Belgian football. This is the chance for the Belgian players to write a page in world football history.
They’ve played Argentina twice in the World Cup before - losing the 1986 semi-final, and winning a group match in 1982. In both cases the image that has lasted is one of Maradona. Anyone who knows the World Cup can bring to mind the image of Maradona, his face lit up with joy, almost-but-not-quite losing his balance as he celebrates the second of his two goals in the 1986 game. Even the 1982 Belgian victory is mainly remembered for the famous photo in which Maradona appears to be herding the Belgian defenders like a sheepdog.
You could argue that neither Belgium nor Argentina have yet played to their full potential in Brazil but after four matches they are the two sides with the most shots on goal in the tournament. That makes you wonder whether the two goalkeepers could emerge as the decisive figures.
Belgium have the best goalkeeper in the world. Thibaut Courtois has such freakish, rubbery athleticism and precocious serenity that the sportsman he brings to mind is not another footballer, but the great Olympian, Michael Phelps.
Argentina have Monaco’s sub keeper Sergio Romero, who was never tested against Switzerland and still somehow almost managed to fail. The memory of Romero’s uncertain handling and kicking will be a quiet source of dread in a defence already weakened by the loss of Marcos Rojo.
Romero himself might be dreading a repetition of the defence’s mistake against Switzerland, when Fernandez and Garay were outwitted by Xherdan Shaqiri and left their goalkeeper facing Josip Drmic one-on-one. Both men panicked. Romero ran into no-man’s land and froze. Drmic chipped the ball straight into his hands. Eden Hazard might not be so merciful.
Argentina are the top possession side in the World Cup and often find themselves pushed up the pitch and defending the half-way line. Belgium have already scored three goals on the counter-attack in four World Cup games. To put that in perspective, the top counter-attacking side in last season’s Premier League was Liverpool – with nine counter-attacking goals in 38 matches. So Belgium’s strength corresponds with Argentina’s weakness.
Belgium have other strengths that Argentina lack, most notably the aerial power of Marouane Fellaini. Argentina will worry whenever they concede a set-piece near goal. The worry for Wilmots is that Fellaini might win everything in the air but lose everything on the ground and, against Messi, that would be fatal.