So it is developing into a World Cup about individuals. Lionel Messi and Neymar are taking the weight and the responsibility, and have put their countries a couple of games away from a final. It will not be easy for the Belgium players who will be trying to deal with Messi in their quarter-final tomorrow because Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany and Daniel van Buyten are tall players and it will be hard for them, with that physique, trying to halt him. Messi will not cope with their physicality but players built like that will find it difficult to stop him and all his mobility.
There is a problem with Argentina, though. There is too much dependency on Messi and it is very risky. When you are managing a player as good as that, of course you do things to get the best out of him. But you can never know that he will always be able to do things. If there was a player who we knew would be able to reach the level every time he walks over the line on to the field then he would be a very special one. He doesn’t exist and that kind of certainty doesn’t exist. It’s why we love football. Things are unpredictable. Problems and challenges are created for us to cope with. What I am trying to say is that some of the other players in the Argentina team – who have not been playing with pace or continuity – must correct that and show the level.
The problem for Belgium is how to control Messi and contain him. When my Liverpool team played against him it was still early days for him. He was a young player, coming through at Barcelona, and they used him on the right wing when we played against Barcelona in the Champions League in 2007. He was depending more on his natural left foot, dribbling and going inside against Alvaro Arbeloa. Alvaro is right-footed and he was able to do a good job. Ronaldinho was more of the threat at that time. We won 2-1 away and lost 1-0 at home, taking us through on the away goals’ rule.
But I remember Manchester United in the Champions League final against Barcelona in 2011, when they were working and working to close Messi down in the central areas and trying to control those central parts on the Wembley pitch. The problem was that Barcelona had Dani Alves working wide and David Villa going up with the United left-back. Messi always looks to go away from the game and come back in. That means that if you have one or two players on him all the time – like the Switzerland team did on Tuesday – there can be new spaces opening up. The opponents lose focus on those spaces. And that’s why they need the other players in the team, with quick legs, to come in and work with Messi. He is a different player to Diego Maradona. He is working at his best when other players are around him, working off him. It is not the best way to make him do it on his own.
In pictures: World Cup 2014: Players whose stock has soared
In pictures: World Cup 2014: Players whose stock has soared
1/5 Karim Benzema
Karim Benzema shoots past Noel Valladares which leads to France's second goal being scored during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group E match between France and Honduras at Estadio Beira-Rio on June 15, 2014 in Porto Alegre
Paul Gilham/Getty Images
2/5 James Rodriguez
James Rodriguez shoots and scores his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at Maracana on June 28, 2014
Julian Finney/Getty Images
3/5 Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez of Chile celebrates after scoring his teams first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Chile and Australia at Arena Pantanal on June 13, 2014 in Cuiaba, Brazil.
Stu Forster/Getty Images
4/5 Guillermo Ochoa
Mexico's goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between the Netherlands and Mexico at the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil, 29 June 2014.
5/5 Bryan Ruiz
Bryan Ruiz scores his team's first goal on a header past Gianluigi Buffon during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group D match between Italy and Costa Rica at Arena Pernambuco on June 20, 2014 in Recife, Brazil.
Michael Steele/Getty Images
There is what I think you call a “perfect symmetry” about Argentina and Brazil, both needing their best player more than they should do. It is no different with Brazil and Neymar, who is taking a burden. I know how much talent there is to help him out because I have managed quite a few of the players in that Brazil team. There were Oscar, Ramires and David Luiz at Chelsea, and Julio Cesar who was with me at Internazionale – all great, professional players – but observe Luiz most carefully if you are watching Brazil play Colombia tonight. People say he sometimes loses focus but I think he is one of the best defenders you will see, with vision and pace as well as passion and a good mentality. He was very good to work with at Chelsea because he wanted to improve and analyse the way he was working and playing. Like a lot of players, he needs to believe in what he is doing and will thrive with a coach who he can believe in. We are coming towards the end of the tournament now but I would not be surprised if we look back in a week and say that the Brazil coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, had found Luiz to be a huge player for him.
The Europeans are not out of it at all. Germany were under a lot of pressure against Algeria on Monday and I think the way the team played that night will be a wake-up call for them. Sometimes a performance like that in a tournament can be what is needed to shake up a team. Colombia are interesting, too. The South Americans like to set the pace of the game – establish what we in Spain call a “contagious tempo”. They will like to keep it slow. In my experience the difficulty is that you try to impose your tempo but they bring it back down again and make it difficult.
But it is Argentina and Brazil who look most fascinating. There is so much talent in those squads that we are still waiting to see – and the team which can bring it out on to the pitch, to work around Messi or Neymar, could be the one which lifts the trophy. We will know a little more about who has managed to do that in the quarter-finals when we talk next time.
Benzema can be a central problem to Germany
It has been fascinating to see which strikers can succeed because it is a different level of pressure in a World Cup finals. The psychological aspect is an important factor. The performance of Colombia’s James Rodriguez against Uruguay, where he scored both the goals in their 2-0 win, proved what a talent he is and Divock Origi, the young Belgium player, looks like a very special player. There is pace there with him and no fear.
And another player I have found it interesting to watch is Karim Benzema. We have always known he has talent and he has shown a strong mentality in his first World Cup. But it has been interesting to see him working from different starting positions. He has been used in different ways and he adapts well. He has made an impact from wider position but it is when he plays centrally, as a pure striker, that he seems most dangerous. His performance could be significant in the tie with Germany.Reuse content