3 July ~ The World Cup is opening up. With both finalists of 2006's tournament long gone, Brazil's chance of becoming the first hosts to also be defending champions snuffed out by Holland, and some doubts still existing over Spain's ability to take their Euro 2008 victory a step further this year, one of the remaining three previous world champions will fall today. In Argentina, there's respect for today's opponents Germany. There's also, though, an increasing sense of destiny behind Diego Maradona's progress at this World Cup.
For Argentina, a young, well-balanced Germany side with enough pace and patience (a shame England didn't have that to go with the passion and power of which we hear so much) to cause difficulties to the central defence will be the toughest opponents they've yet faced. The Argentine defence – and in particular Martín Demichelis – has looked vulnerable throughout the tournament, with Vélez Sarsfield centre-back Nicolás Otamendi's place at right-back now assured after the early wobbles of the woefully out of position Jonás Gutiérrez in the first two games. Javier Mascherano will also be walking a tightrope – the captain and sole shield for the central defenders is just one booking away from missing a potential semi-final.
All the same, there's optimism born of a forward line that's firing on all cylinders and a midfield that's even, so far, managed to carry Ángel Di María up to this point. Lionel Messi will play in spite of a fever preventing him from training on Thursday, and even if he's not fully fit he'll inevitably draw a lot of attention from Germany's back line – we saw how that benefited Carlos Tevez on Sunday. There will also have been some considerable joy in the Argentine camp at Brazil's elimination on Friday. Certainly, the motorcades and horn-beepers were out in force in central Buenos Aires as soon as the final whistle blew.
The quarter-final is as far as the more realistic supporters and pundits expected Argentina to get in South Africa. None of us, though, expected it to be this easy. None expected Sergio Romero to have had so little to do in goal, very few expected Gabriel Heinze to have got this far without the red mist descending (scuffles with clumsy TV cameramen aside), and even if he's yet to score, Messi's play has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the World Cup. We'll know soon enough whether Maradona's the man to take this side beyond the nation that vanquished them four years ago. From the semi-finals onwards, any of the four teams are deserving winners.
Argentines are aware this match is no foregone conclusion, but the mood in Buenos Aires is an unexpected one: rather than overriding tension or nerves, there's a sense of calm anticipation. It's not every day Diego Maradona has this effect on people, but if he takes his team one step further, you can rest assured it won't be a relaxing Saturday in the Argentine capital. Sam Kelly