The quarterfinals wrap up on Day 21 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup with Argentina and Belgium playing in the early match, and The Netherlands facing Costa Rica as Los Ticos try to keep their historic run going.
Here are four keys to the games…
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Angel Di Maria
Angel Di Maria essentially saved Argentina in their 1-0 extra-time win versus Switzerland in the Round of 16. The Real Madrid midfielder was running all over the pitch trying to spark something for his team and it worked.
Considering how much Lionel Messi was being relied upon by La Albiceleste for most of the World Cup, it must have produced a sigh of relief to see his teammate score against the Swiss. Di Maria appeared to be fatigued in previous matches, but seemingly shook it off once the knockout stages began.
Now that Argentina goes up against a stronger foe in Belgium, players such as Di Maria have to replicate those kinds of performances. Messi will obviously be the first player that the Belgians try to shut down. With Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi underwhelming, manager Alejandro Sabella may need Di Maria to come up big yet again.
Di Maria’s work rate, vision, and technique to cause a lot of problems for the unconvincing Belgian defence, so that could be Argentina’s hope to qualify for their first semifinal since 1990.
Hazard, de Bruyne must run at defence
Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka sent a reminder to the world that Argentina’s defence isn’t strong and can concede a lot of chances. Switzerland wasn’t able to score, but that might change with Belgium.
The Red Devils’ two most influential stars, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, are fast players that are quick on the ball. Their sharp turns allow them to open up space for themselves. That speed is going to be crucial when attacking Argentina’s defence.
The United States were tormented by those two, especially late in their Round of 16 match. Once a fresh Romelu Lukaku entered the game, it was even worse for the U.S. Argentina’s centre-backs Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez are solid, but aren’t convincing. Hazard and de Bruyne will test them for the first time in the tournament.
If both players get the ball, they have to run at them and force the defenders to make the first move. If Hazard and de Bruyne can do that, much like Nigeria did, then it could be a long day for La Albiceleste.
Costa Rica has to stay organized
There’s been a common trend with teams that play The Netherlands. They’ve all, at some point, left themselves open at the back and the Dutch have taken advantage. Costa Rica is clearly the underdog, like they’ve been for most of the World Cup, so they’ll probably use the same system that’s gotten them this far.
The Netherlands hasn’t controlled possession much in the World Cup. They’re averaging just under 44 percent, which will probably go up significantly versus Costa Rica. It’s up to Los Ticos to stay compact, clog up the middle, and not allow Arjen Robben to cut from right to left and shoot.
Costa Rica plays with three centre backs and two holding midfielders, so those five have to make sure that there’s little space for any of the Dutch playmakers to exploit. If they give them even a bit, they’ll get exposed and concede.
Dutch need to press Costa Rica quickly
This World Cup has been deemed “the tournament of the counter-press.” Teams are very quick to close down their opponents and win back possession quickly. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal’s system utilizes this strategy, which will be their key to success.
Whoever plays as a wingback, whether it’s Dirk Kuyt, Daryl Janmaat, or Paul Verhaegh, will be crucial. The midfield and strikers have to immediately close down Costa Rica when they win the ball, because that will be when they’re vulnerable.
When the Netherlands has possession, Costa Rica will retreat and shut up shop. If they get the ball, they’ll have to do something with it, but before one of their players can make a decision, they have to make sure that a Costa Rican is closed down immediately. Then they can counter out wide and create a quality goal scoring opportunity.