A Belgian walks into a bar ...  Lionel Messi shares a joke with teammate Fernando Gago during a training session in Vespasiano.

A Belgian walks into a bar ... Lionel Messi shares a joke with teammate Fernando Gago during a training session in Vespasiano.

Almost 30 years ago – in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – Diego Maradona was widely held to have won the tournament single-handedly for Argentina, so great was his influence on what was widely regarded as an average team.

Maradona was at the peak of his powers, in his mid-twenties, and indisputably the greatest player in the world. He was a force of nature, seemingly able to impose his will upon any game and any opponent, committing acts of outrageous cheating – the ''Hand of God'' goal against England in the quarter-final – and in the same game scoring one of the best goals ever seen.

His heir in footballing greatness, Lionel Messi, may well have to attain those same heights if Alex Sabella's Albicelestes are to emulate Carlos Bilardo's team and take the biggest prize in world football.

Argentina, so strongly fancied before this tournament, has won every game and goes into its quarter-final in the early hours of Sunday morning as favourite against Belgium, but it is only its record and history which is keeping it at a short quote.

The South Americans have been far from impressive in the tournament so far. They were helped to their win in the opening match against Bosnia-Herzegovina by an own goal and a Messi special.

The little maestro delivered another thunderbolt – just as the final seconds were ticking away – against an obdurate Iran in their second game, and netted twice as the Argentinians just held on in a roller coaster match against Nigeria in their final group match.

In the round of 16 game against the Swiss, Argentina also struggled to see off an opponent against whom it was expected to deal with relative ease. Messi didn't score this time, but he set up Angel di Maria's dramatic winner two minutes from the end of extra time as a penalty shootout loomed.

So patchy has Argentina's form been – and so crucial has Messi been in providing it with the inspiration to win matches that its sometimes stodgy football they it can't – that the pressure on him to deliver the World Cup is mounting.

In truth it always has been. Since he became acknowledged, alongside Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo as the greatest player in the world, the weight of Argentinian expectation has always borne down heavily on the small, slight, Messi.

So often the criticism was that he performed superbly for his club side, Barcelona, but not for his country.

That won't wash after his displays here. The Argentines have, on paper, one of the most formidable attacking line-ups in the tournament, with Messi accompanied by the likes of Di Maria, Kun Aguero (now injured),  Ezequiel Levezzi and Gonzalo Higuain.

But, Messi aside, they have functioned like a V8 engine with several of its cylinders blocked and its suspension broken.

Were it not for the Barcelona man, it is arguable that Argentina, on the form they have shown so far, would not have reached this far.

Their supporters, of course, will see that as a positive, and it may well be. Often World Cups are won by teams that begin slowly (invariably that's how Italy did it in its more recent triumphs) and grow into the tournament, finding a rhythm and purpose to their play with each successive game.

But Argentina hasn't really done that. It has continued to stutter: had Switzerland taken some of its chances it could well have been a very different story in that last game.

Even Maradona is now concerned about the pressure on Messi to perform. He wants the number 10's teammates to lift their workrate and start to contribute rather more than they have been doing.

''We still haven't got started,'' the former Argentine great and its coach at the last World Cup told Reuters. "They need to get it into their heads that we can't be 'Sporting Messi'. Maybe he can score a great goal ... but if it doesn't come off for the kid, we can't jump on him tomorrow as if he's guilty of the Argentine disaster.

''The kid (Messi) is very alone ... The team doesn't have a change of rhythm, movements in its strikers. I feel something very strong inside, like bitterness, rage, frustration, because Argentina can play much, much better ... The coach has to impose this. If they do not improve against Belgium, we're in trouble."

Belgium promises to be the toughest nut that Argentina will have faced so far.

The Red Devils have been one of the big improvers in world football in the past few years and their World Cup campaign bears some similarity to Argentina's in that it started slowly but has begun to build.

They came through their group with three wins in three, but Marc Wilmots' team was made to sweat, literally and metaphorically, by the heroic Americans in an epic encounter in Salvador in the round of 16.

The match was scoreless at 90 minutes before Kevin de Bruyne put the Europeans one up three minutes into extra time, Romelu Lukaku doubling that advantage in the 105th minute.

The tireless Americans made it interesting when 19-year-old Julian Green pulled one back with 13 minutes to go, but the Belgians always had just enough up their sleeves to retain control and set up a rematch of the 1986 semi-final when Maradona – who else – inspired Argentina to a win over a competitive Belgium team.

The heat in Salvador and the physicality of the USA game will have taken something out of the Belgians, but Argentina too had to go through extra time. 

If Belgium can keep Messi on a short leash and the powerful Lukaku gets to run at the South American team's shaky rearguard from the start,  then the Belgians might gain a measure of World Cup revenge almost two decades on.