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

Comments (6)
Comment by gtheo 2010-07-03 14:31:35

Maradona has done more for this World Cup than any other on-field star over the last three weeks. Truly rehabilitated in the eyes of the world, but then again, did anybody ever truly hate him. He has been immense!

Comment by The Exploding Vole 2010-07-03 18:06:34

Just wondering whether Lionel Messi is still "the world's greatest player".

Comment by Dalef65 2010-07-04 15:39:59

What gtheo?

Comment by Dalef65 2010-07-04 18:50:08

To clarify,what im saying is this;
There at least 2 countries in the World that would wholeheartedly disagree with what gtheo is saying.
England is one,and I would wager that the majority in Brazil arent exactly in love with Diego Armando Maradona either...

Comment by gtheo 2010-07-04 19:05:02

Dalef65: My contentions are of course a matter of opinion. Maradona has clearly entertained us all and however much it pains some people to admit, it's hard to have just a little affection for the little man. World Cups would have been just a little duller without him, whether for good or for bad.

Comment by Jongudmund 2010-07-05 12:54:56

In England he will never live down the handball in Mexico 86.

And the pundits were laughing at his antics in a medley of touchline 'highlights' after the Germany game.

After his team were stuffed.

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