As potential semifinal vs. Brazil looms, Argentina must step it up

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Everyone predicted the group opener with the Ivory Coast would be a challenge. In reality, it was significantly more difficult than the 2-1 score suggested. The dynamic West African side outplayed Argentina for large periods of the match and could well have won it if not for some hesitant finishing.

Argentina eventually won the three points courtesy of a scrappy strike from substitute Lautaro Acosta four minutes from full time, but the effort required to claim the victory verified that Argentina would need to be at its very best to defend its gold medal from the 2004 Athens Games.

Against Australia, Sergio Batista's side improved in its overall performance, but still couldn't manage to find an effective solution capable of breaking down the rock-solid Aussie defense -- even with Lionel Messi on the field. It had been ages since we last saw a side defend its own goal with up to 10 men for large part of the 90 minutes, but the highly disciplined Olyroos chose this approach and made life extremely difficult for the Argentines.

As was the case against the Ivory Coast, however, the persistent Argentines finally picked up a well-deserved victory after a moment of genius from Ezequiel Lavezzi, who sensationally volleyed home an inch-perfect Ángel Di María cross in the 78th minute. The tight 1-0 win identified how much Argentina struggled, even though it completely dominated somewhat limited opponents, who solely concentrated on spoiling the party.

Having already secured passage into the quarterfinals, Batista rested several of his key players for Argentina's final group match against Serbia. Argentina still managed to cruise to a comfortable 2-0 victory, and could even afford to miss a penalty, as Los Albicelestes broke an Olympic record with their ninth consecutive win at the Games.

Although missing the inspiration of attacking players Messi and Juan Román Riquelme, the Argentines proved that they can also count on their reserves. Ever Banega was very efficient when distributing the ball in the midfield, while River Plate starlet Diego Buonanotte showed flashes of his incredible ability, even before curling in a superb second-half free kick.

Despite a first-rate display from his second-choice players against the Serbs, Batista has affirmed that his starting 11 for the enticing quarterfinal matchup with the Netherlands in Shanghai on Saturday will look "almost identical" to the one that turned out against the Ivory Coast.

But having encountered its fair share of difficulty in the first round -- particularly when it came down to penetrating its opponents -- Argentina knows that things can only get significantly harder. To overcome the Netherlands, Argentina will have to be on top of its game at all moments.

The Dutch may have left a lot to be desired in the group stage, after having only scraped into the quarters with two draws (including a dramatic last-gasp 2-2 tie with the U.S.) and an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Japan. Nevertheless, they are a traditional soccer power and one that Argentina will most definitely respect.

"We have to be very cautious of Holland, we have to respect them because they have good players," insisted Batista. "But I think the team [Argentina] has what it takes to win the match, but Holland deserves our respect."

There's no question Argentina is more than capable of eliminating the Netherlands, particularly because the Dutch have looked extremely shaky in defense and have lacked efficiency in their attack.

If Messi is able to link up with the likes of Lavezzi and Sergio Agüero in Argentina's intimidating attack, the South Americans should have no problem scoring goals against a vulnerable Dutch defense. Argentina's forte is its offensive ability, and if its strikers are on top of their game, it should fire on all cylinders.

A victory would perhaps assure Argentina of a highly anticipated showdown with South American rivals Brazil in the semifinals. Even though an encounter between both sides would have been more suitable for the gold-medal match, it does promise to be an intriguing contest.

The Ronaldinho-led Brazilians are the greatest threat standing in Argentina's way, having won their group in style with three successive victories, logging a staggering nine (mostly spectacular) goals in favor and none against. But before anticipating what would be a dream match-up with Argentina, Dunga's side will need to concentrate on getting the better of Cameroon in the quarters.

The solid Cameroonians eliminated Brazil at the quarterfinal stage of Sydney 2000, before edging Spain on penalties for the gold medal, and the Seleção will surely be looking for sweet revenge. A victory here would allow them to begin thinking about Argentina.

Argentina has the potential to retain its Olympic gold medal, but to do this it must be prepared to adjust itself to the circumstances that lie ahead as the competition reaches its decisive elimination stage. The Argentines are still the team to beat, but must focus on its objective at all moments.