Argentina vs. Belgium, 2014 World Cup preview: A clash of underperformers

Neither Argentina nor Belgium have lived up to expectations at the World Cup, though they clash over a place in the semifinals on Saturday.

SB Nation's 2014 World Cup Bracket'

Update: Argentina beat Belgium to reach semifinals

Between them, Argentina and Belgium have almost as much attacking depth as every other side in the quarterfinals combined. From Lionel Messi to Eden Hazard, both sides have an embarrassment of riches up top, making it even more disappointing that these teams have failed to entertain in Brazil so far. They've both turned out abject and impotent performances, and have made it this far through individual brilliance and brute force, respectively.

Hopefully things will be a little more exciting when these sides face off over a place in the semifinals on Saturday. If their attacks finally click into place, we'll no doubt see a game filled with goals. If they don't, we could see another penalty shootout.

Team news

Argentina will likely be without Sergio Agüero, who picked up a muscular tear in the group stages. Ezequiel Lavezzi is favourite to start in the attacker's absence, though Rodrigo Palacio is also in contention. José Basanta is expected to make his first start of the tournament at left back in place of the suspended Marcos Rojo.

Belgium's only definite absentee is backup fullback Anthony Vanden Borre, who broke his ankle in Belgium's group stage victory over South Korea. However, coach Marc Wilmots still has big decisions all over the pitch, with Romelu Lukaku hoping to displace Divock Origi up top, and Marouane Fellaini fighting to keep his spot in the centre of midfield.

Projected lineups (left to right)

Argentina (4-2-3-1): Sergio Romero; José Basanta, Ezequiel Garay, Federico Fernández, Pablo Zabaleta; Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago; Ángel di María, Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi; Gonzalo Higuaín.

Belgium (4-2-3-1): Thibaut Courtois; Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Daniel van Buyten, Toby Alderweireld; Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini; Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Dries Mertens; Romelu Lukaku.

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Key matchups

Lionel Messi vs. Axel Witsel - With Argentina having looked so disjointed in attack, they've come to rely on the sheer brilliance of Lionel Messi. Without his interventions, they may not have even made it this far. Switzerland managed to limit his influence in the last round by charging two defensive midfielders with the task of marking him, though Belgium will likely be wholly reliant on their anchorman Axel Witsel to keep him quiet. If the Belgian succeeds, the Albiceleste will continue to struggle up top.

Kevin de Bruyne vs. Javier Mascherano - But just as Argentina are reliant on Messi, all of Belgium's attacking play tends to come through their playmaker Kevin de Bruyne. He's their attacking fulcrum; the man tasked with supplying their key creators Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens with incisive, accurate passes. Without him linking the midfield and attack, they'd be reliant on hopeful long balls. If Mascherano can keep him out of the game, Argentina could seize control.

Dries Mertens vs. José Basanta - Wilmots made the bizarre decision to start Nacer Chadli ahead of winger Dries Mertens in Belgium's opening game against Algeria, before introducing the attacker when a goal down at halftime. Mertens' direct running completely changed the match, and he eventually netted an excellent winning goal. If he starts here, he has the potential to cause Argentina's backup left back, José Basanta, great problems in the absence of the suspended Marcos Rojo.

Prediction

The performances of these sides at the World Cup so far have been nigh-on inseparable. Both have dismally failed to live up to expectations or play to the strengths of their players. This one could go right to the wire. 1-1 and a penalty shootout.

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