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FIFA World Cup: Argentina vs. Belgium Match Preview

Both teams scraped extra time wins in the round of 16. Now both look for a ticket into the semis. Will Lionel Messi rule the day again or will the talented Belgium side continue their run?

David Ramos

Argentina and Belgium have similar stories so far at this World Cup. Both were ranked among the top 5 teams most likely to win the competition. Both seemed to be coming together at precisely the right time. Both won every game so far. Yet, neither has thoroughly convinced.

The round of 16 was no different. Against Switzerland, Argentina's main plan was apparently to pass to Messi, who would be triple-marked, or to Di Maria, who would put in a terrible cross or wayward shot. Argentina finally won 1-0 in extra time when Messi eluded several defenders and passed to Di Maria, who this time provided a cool finish.

Belgium, meanwhile, dominated the United States but were quite wasteful. A masterclass goalkeeping performance from Tim Howard sent the teams into extra time at 0-0, though remarkably the US had chances to put the game away. Belgium finally scored twice, though they conceded a consolation goal to make it 2-1 and the US, again remarkably, rallied and nearly tied the game.

Against Belgium, Argentina will be forced to remove one of its best players, Marcos Rojo. The left-back was considered the weak link in the defense but instead has, surprisingly, done a great job. He's second on the team in scoring, behind Messi, with 1 goal.

Jose Maria Basanta could replace him, as he did in the match against the Swiss. The other option is to get Hugo Campagnaro in as a right-back, shifting Pablo Zabaleta to the left-back spot. Campagnaro is a fighter, but he's getting old and fullback is not his primary position.

Coach Alejandro Sabella is surely pondering what other changes he should make to get his side clicking again. Sergio Aguero was dropped due to injury against the Swiss, but Ezequiel Lavezzi was ineffective as a replacement.

Aguero was training again, but it's unlikely he'd start. Sabella could opt for a midfielder such as Maxi Rodriguez to play on the wing instead of Lavezzi. Otherwise, Rodrigo Palacio is the other forward.

Gonzalo Higuain continues to struggle despite being an indispensable piece during qualifying. He's been affected by an injury but should start. Fede Fernandez has also underperformed and there are rumors that he could be dropped for Martin Demichelis.

Fernando Gago is a similar story: lacking fitness and underperforming. He could be dropped for Lucas Biglia, who has done an acceptable job coming in late in games to secure the defense. A more ambitious choice would be Enzo Perez, who has been quality for Benfica this season.

Belgium's lack of bona fide fullbacks might create a a perfect situation for Di Maria or Lavezzi to beat their men on the flanks.

While an injection of fresh faces could be beneficial, Sabella must also be wary of making too many changes and confusing his side.

Belgium's biggest question is: who will start upfront, Divock Origi or Romelu Lukaku? After Christian Benteke went down injured, his replacement, Lukaku, has underwhelmed. Origi started against the USA but it was Lukaku who created one and scored one after he came off the bench.

Thibaut Courtois was having some pain in his knee in practice after a clash with Clint Dempsey against the USA, but should be ready to go. There is a rumor that Steven Defour could start in place of Dries Mertens to solidify the midfield against Messi even more. If not, Kevin Mirallas would be a more natural replacement.

As always, the dangerman for Belgium is the young Eden Hazard, though he's yet to produce a classic display this tournament. Kevin De Bruyne was probably the man-of-the-match against the USA, but Belgium have plenty of weapons. They are used to maintaining a low score and producing a late surge with some key substitutes. Lukaku could be on the bench for precisely this purpose.

Both teams are good on the counter but can also play possession. It will be interesting if either team decides to attack, or if both will sit back and defend.

It's become almost silly how simple the analysis of Argentina games has become. But it really is the same thing again. Belgium will double or triple Messi, so either the Albiceleste will depend on him to somehow win the game by himself yet again, or someone - anyone - will come in and exploit the freedom they will be afforded. The other reality is that a very good Belgian side could steal the match against a shaky but so far resilient Argentine defense.

Argentina (4-3-3): Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Basanta; Gago, Mascherano, Di Maria; Lavezzi, Messi, Higuain

Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Anderweireld, Van Buyten, Kompany, Vertoghen; Witsel, Fellaini; Martens, De Bruyne, Hazard; Origi

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