Round of 16 Preview: Argentina vs. Switzerland, USA vs. Belgium

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Argentina vs. Switzerland

What to watch for:

Argentina might not even be here if not for their tiny talisman, Lionel Messi, whose explosive performances sent them through to the knockout stages at the top of Group F. Though Argentina won all three matches, they were tested all the way to the final whistle against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria, who all asked questions of the Albiceleste in one-goal thrillers.

Manager Alejandro Sabella had his tactics questioned not only by fans and media in the group stage—but also by his own team. Even the mild Messi has voiced criticism during a tournament that has been more nervy than the standings would indicate.

Argentina looks far from settled in their ways, oscillating between a more conventional four-man back-line and a rearguard comprised of either three or five defenders depending upon the circumstances.

In the four-man back-line, as seen in Argentina’s past two matches, Federico Fernández and Ezequiel Garay will patrol the heart of the defense, flanked by Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta on either side. In the opening match, though, Hugo Campagnaro was included as an additional center-back, which allowed Rojo and Zabaleta to get higher on either flank. All bets are off as to which way Sabella actually goes against Switzerland, but, for what it’s worth, he has claimed that the side now plays a 4-3-3 and will stick with it.

The only thing more mystifying than the defensive set-up for Argentina thus far has been the use of Javier Mascherano. Sabella loves Mascherano as his central midfield destroyer, but his defensive posture seems misplaced and even counter-productive at times, detracting from the team’s natural attacking flow. Against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Mascherano was played in this role despite the presence of five defenders behind him, effectively splitting the team into a group of six defensive-minded players and four attackers—a schism that was extremely evident on the pitch.

Going forward, Argentina have created a lot of chances with their front four—which usually features Angel Di Maria, Sergio Agüero, and Gonzalo Higuain alongside Messi—but haven’t put many of them away. While Messi has contributed four goals in three matches, the team’s other two tallies came from Rojo, a defender, and a Bosnian own goal. They’ll need Di Maria, Agüero, and Higuain to start chipping in on the scoresheet if they have any hope of World Cup glory.

That attacking support may even need to come on Tuesday against the Swiss, who have had no problem scoring themselves, but are equally leaky in the back.

With seven goals scored and six conceded in three matches, the Swiss have certainly changed from the past two World Cups. In 2006, they became the first team eliminated without conceding a goal when they were dumped out in the Round of 16 at the hands of Ukraine. Four years later, they exited with only a single goal scored and also one conceded through three games.

This time around, though, they are quite a different beast. They are electrifying, if, at times, irresponsibly so, going forward with an attack that is highlighted by the ruthless finishing of midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri (who scored a hat-trick last match) and the precise service of left back Ricardo Rodriguez.

It is a team whose reputation for rigid structure and dogged defending is belied by a young core that is intent upon attacking, even if it means leaving gaps open at the back.

The 4-4-1-1 formation Switzerland plays is extremely flexible with the ball—and outside backs Rodriguez and Stephane Lichtsteiner look to get forward early and often when in possession. Lichtsteiner has had some trouble on both sides of the ball this tournament, but is capable of flipping a game on its head at a moment’s notice, as seen in his matches at Juventus, where he plays his club football.

The Swiss were ripped apart by France in their second match, losing 5-2 in a game that can only be described as a free-for-all. They had difficulty chasing forwards into the channels, organizing marks in the defensive third, and, most importantly, cutting out dangerous passes into space. That will all need to change against an Argentine squad that is at its best when it flies at opposing defenses and puts them under heavy pressure.

Prediction: Argentina wins.

Belgium vs. USA

What to watch for:

The Belgians, much like Argentina, come into this match perfect in the standings, but not-so-perfect on the pitch.

Though they dispatched Algeria, Russia, and South Korea in the group stage, their weaknesses were exposed in matches that their opponents turned into slow-tempo defensive struggles. Despite so much individual attacking brilliance with the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens at their disposal, Belgium frequently found themselves out of ideas near goal.

Behind the frontline, manager Marc Wilmots has ceaselessly rotated a midfield that has struggled to find its feet in matches, uncharacteristically giving the ball away to opponents in the center of the field and losing 50/50 challenges often.

Nevertheless, Belgium won each of its first three matches late in the game, showing particular mettle in the final 20 minutes. While they looked relatively anaemic far from goal, their attacking prowess was evident once the ball was worked into the box. Hazard, in particular, as an in-cutting winger, gave defenders problems late in games as legs tired.

Belgium  has several key injury worries, including captain Vincent Kompany, who is their rock in the back.

They’ll face the United States, who, much to the contrary, received a brilliant injury report ahead of Tuesday’s match. Jozy Altidore, the American striker who was substituted with a hamstring injury in their first match against Ghana, is in line to potentially return against Belgium.

That would be a big boost for the US, who has struggled since moving back to a 4-2-3-1 formation that has left captain Clint Dempsey relatively stranded upfield without a second advanced outlet for possession.

The central midfield trio of Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and Michael Bradley will return and was extremely successful during the group stages (though Bradley came under fire for a perceived foolishness and lack of impact, which is equal parts true and myopic).

In the heart of defense, the US will have a choice between Omar Gonzalez, who had a fine performance against Germany, or the man he replaced, Geoff Cameron, who enjoyed a superb outing against Ghana, followed by a nightmare against Portugal. While Gonzalez offers an unmatched physical presence and ball-winning ability, Cameron’s distribution and organizational acumen will likely see him return to his starting role.

Either way, the US has a big defensive test ahead of them in Belgium, who haven’t yet shown their full potential, but will be hungry to break out and prove themselves worthy of their “dark horse” label.

Prediction:   Belgium  wins.

[Editor’s note: I disagree with Zack, because … I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!]

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