Jan Vertonghen has no doubt Belgium can stop Lionel Messi and make it through to only their second FIFA World Cup semi-final in history.
Such has been Messi’s form in Brazil that Argentina have faced accusations of being over-reliant on the Barcelona star, who has scored four of the his nation’s seven goals. Twenty-eight years ago Argentina were heavily dependant on the talents of Diego Maradona, who scored five goals to help the South American nation to World Cup glory in Mexico 1986.
Four years earlier Belgium successfully shackled Maradona by surrounding the diminutive dribbler whenever he had the ball at his feet. A picture taken of six Belgians surrounding Maradona is one of the abiding memories of that World Cup in Spain. Belgium do not plan to do the same with Messi on Saturday in Brasilia – coach Marc Wilmots prefers to mark zonally – but defender Vertonghen is sure Los Diables Rogues (Red Devils) will be strong enough to repel the heir to Maradona’s throne.
“I think Messi has been outstanding so far in this tournament. He has been their main man,” Vertonghen told a press conference in Brasilia. “But if we defend like we did in our previous matches we will stop him, (Sergio) Aguero, (Angel) Di Maria and (Gonzalo) Higuain. I’m convinced of that.”
The plan to stifle Maradona in Barcelona worked that night as Belgium recorded a historic 1-0 win. Wilmots has had no urge at all to remind his players of the events of ’82 though. “We have never spoken about it to any of the players. It’s history,” Wilmots said.
Belgium’s recent history has been full of excitement thanks to the emergence of the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Vertonghen, who operates as a dynamic left-back for his country. Belgium stormed through their qualifying group, dropping just four points in the process. But there were question marks as to whether Wilmots could take the individual stars at his disposal and mould them into a united and effective unit at a major tournament.
If we defend like we did in our previous matches we will stop him, Aguero, Di Maria and Higuain. I’m convinced of that.
Belgium defender Jan Vertonghen on Argentina’s Lionel Messi and his fellow attacking team-mates
So far the Belgium coach has passed the test with reasonable success. Belgium won every one of their group games and had it not been for a superhuman effort by Tim Howard in Salvador, Los Diables Rouges would have hammered the United States in the last round. Belgium have only made it to the last four once before – in 1986 when Maradona got his revenge in Mexico – and Vertonghen is desperate for the current team to make history on Saturday.
“We don’t want things to stop,” Vertonghen added. “We are ready for the rest. We want to play even better. We have been working hard over the last few years and this is the reward for that hard work.”
Although Vertonghen sat alongside Wilmots at the pre-match press conference in Brasilia, the Tottenham defender appears to be a doubt for the quarter-final. Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Mousa Dembele were all lacking fitness, Wilmots said.
Whether Wilmots was just trying to sell the Argentinians a dummy or not remains to be seen. “We are not sure (about those three), but we will train today (on Friday) and see,” Wilmots said. “We hope everyone will be fit and ready to go.” One thing that seems certain is the return of Thomas Vermaelen, who is available after recovering from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the Switzerland game.
For all Hazard’s talents, meanwhile, the Chelsea midfielder has not been at his best in Brazil. Wilmots hopes a pep talk he gave him on Thursday night will kick the talented 23-year-old into gear though. “I have followed Eden for a long time and in the last 18 months he has improved,” Wilmots said. “I talked to him last night and told him how he could improve even more. You will hopefully see a result on the pitch. He is eager.”