Football

Sabella blasts critics who say Argentina are too reliant on Messi

Sabella says it's only normal that Argentina rely on Messi, as he's the best player in the world

QUARTER-FINAL

ARGENTINA v BELGIUM

(Tonight, 11.59pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 141 & StarHub TV Ch 223)

When you have a player like Lionel Messi in your team, why would you not lean on him to lead you to World Cup glory?

Critics and fans have been quick to lambast Argentina's dependence on the forward to carry them to a third World Cup, but coach Alejandro Sabella was not amused by the suggestion.

"Four years ago, he was criticised, now we are being told we greatly depend on Messi, so it is not easy," Sabella said at a press conference at the Brasilia National Stadium this morning (Singapore time), ahead of their quarter-final against Belgium tonight.

"I repeat - any team that have a player like Messi will depend a lot on him... he is the best player in the world, but there is team work also."

The Barcelona forward has scored four of Argentina's seven goals in Brazil, picking up the slack left by his fellow attackers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, who are yet to find the back of the net because of injury and form problems.

CONTRAST

The widespread praise for Messi is in marked contrast to the criticism he received at the last World Cup in South Africa, where his perceived low-key displays were cited as part of the reason his side crashed out in the last eight to Germany.

That seemed like a distant memory on Tuesday, when a mazy Messi dribble set up Angel di Maria to score an extra-time winner to beat Switzerland in the 118th minute of their last-16 clash in Sao Paulo.

But Sabella pointed to the tackle by substitute forward Rodrigo Palacio in midfield that set Messi up to stride through a tiring Swiss defence, and lay the ball perfectly at the feet of di Maria to stroke home first time.

"If Palacio hadn't been there, we wouldn't have had a goal for Argentina," the coach said.

"I want a team that support Messi, that's strengthening him, that helps him to feel good, so that he can perform as he has been doing."

The good news for Argentina is that Aguero could return to action after missing the match against the Swiss.

FAB FOUR

The Manchester City forward injured a leg muscle in the 3-2 Group F win over Nigeria, but took part in training yesterday without any obvious discomfort, suggesting Argentina's "Fab Four" - Aguero, Messi, Higuain and di Maria - would be reunited.

While Sabella had already settled on his starting 11, he said that he had not informed the squad of his plans.

"I have not confirmed the line-up," he said. "We've done recovery work for the past two days.

"I have an idea as to who the 11 will be, but I have to discuss this with the players first."

Sabella said his team had "not reached the level they had wanted to reach" and would need to be careful against a very strong Belgium side, but was optimistic of avoiding a third straight quarter-final exit.

"Yes, it would be frustrating (to go out again), we have the hope, faith and confidence that we will move on to the next one," he said.

"I believe that Belgium have a very good team, they have a golden generation."

"I remember in 1982 they also had a golden generation and beat Argentina," he added, referring to the 1-0 win the Europeans claimed in the group phase in Barcelona.

"They have a lot of players who play in English and Spanish leagues. Very powerful team and we will have to be cautious when we don't have the ball."

- Wire Services.


I repeat — any team that have a player like Messi will depend a lot on him... he is the best player in the world, but there is team work also.

- Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella

Step up, Hazard

TALENT: Belgium playmaker Eden Hazard has six goals and 49 international caps, but has yet to set the World Cup alight. PHOTO: AFP

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots has taken Eden Hazard aside to discuss how to get the best from the gifted, but under-performing, midfielder for tonight's quarter-final against Argentina.

The 23-year-old Chelsea player undoubtedly has the talent, but has yet to set the World Cup Finals in Brazil alight as Belgium eased through Group H before dispatching the United States in a tight last-16 game.

Wilmots told a news conference this morning (Singapore time), ahead of the Argentina match that he was pleased with Hazard's performances in an attacking position on the left, his partnership with fullback Jan Vertonghen, as well as his help in tracking back.

"I spoke to him last night about how he can improve and be even more effective; he is eager to learn to make progress with the team," said Wilmots.

"I don't think he is lacking much. He has been working on defence for the last 12 to 18 months.

IMPROVED

"He is on the left with Jan (Vertonghen), and we have improved a lot on this particular side.

"What exactly we discussed will remain between us but, hopefully, we will see it on the pitch tomorrow."

Hazard made his Belgium debut in 2008 when he was 17, and has made 49 appearances in total, scoring six goals.

He seemed to struggle with the weight of expectation in his early international career, which was also hampered when he fell out with former coach Georges Leekens.

Under Wilmots' guidance, however, he has started to fulfil his obvious potential, and netted a superb goal against Macedonia in qualifying for Brazil.

Tonight's game against Argentina, who eliminated Belgium in the semi-finals in 1986 - the furthest the Europeans have gone in the tournament - is a chance for Hazard to shine on the biggest stage.

Wilmots said that Vertonghen and fellow defender Toby Alderweireld, as well as midfielder Mousa Dembele, were carrying minor injuries, but he was confident they would be fit to face the South Americans. 
- Reuters.

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