Messi gives hope to faltering Argentina
BRASILIA, Brazil -- "Argentine Invaders" proclaimed Brasilia's local freesheet on Wednesday. Lionel Messi was described as a devil, too. A truism of this World Cup for Brazilians is that the only thing worse than their team failing would be Argentine victory.
The sight of blue and white camper vans is becoming very familiar on the city's dual carriageways. Having heartily celebrated beating Switzerland in Sao Paulo, convoys started arriving on Thursday afternoon. By the evening, the shopping malls, bars and commercial areas were chiming with the sound of castellano Spanish.
What Brazil and Belgium fear most from Argentina in a football sense is blatantly obvious. The Messi conundrum recalls that famous Bill Shankly anecdote from 1970 when he ran down almost an entire Manchester United team -- "Paddy Crerand, now he's deceptive, he's slower than he looks," etc. -- only omitting Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton and then saying: "Are you trying to tell me that you can't beat a team that's only got three players in it?"
"I repeat," said a grumpy Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella at his Friday news conference in Brasilia. "Any team that has a player like Messi will greatly depend on him as a player."
However, if success is to be achieved, and at this stage against a strong Belgian opponent, Sabella needs more than one star to shine, especially so when he has concerns in most areas of his team. The defence looked vulnerable against the Swiss in Sao Paulo. Had Xherdan Shaqiri had a striker worthy of the name to complement him, then Argentina would already have been facing the music in Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, in midfield -- aside from the effervescent Angel Di Maria -- Argentina continue to lack fluency and guile, while all those forwards who have played off Messi have so far failed to score.
Sabella must also live with an overriding belief back home that Argentina are the best team in the tournament. Nothing less than victory will do, a conceit that flies in the face of Argentina not travelling further than a quarterfinal since 1990.
"It's a cultural issue," said Sabella. "It's the way we are. When I was little I always heard we were the best, but we had not yet been world champions."
Sabella was 24 at the time Argentina won their first title in 1978. Now, he and his team have been doused in criticism for a lack of support to the miracles of Messi, with Claudio Caniggia, who provided able support for Diego Maradona at Italia '90, leading the charge.
"We have not reached the level we want to reach," Sabella admitted. "We have won with very tight results. We are looking for an improvement."
The loss of Marcos Rojo to suspension is a major concern. The Sporting Lisbon full-back, initially the subject of considerable doubt, has been a slow-burning success story. There is far less confidence in his likely replacement, Jose Maria Basanta, of Monterrey in the Mexican league. Rojo, a long-standing Liverpool target, would seem far better equipped than Basanta to deal with Eden Hazard on the left flank, or indeed when Dries Mertens or Kevin de Bruyne are switched there by Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, as he might frequently do.
Sabella, perhaps by way of diversion, intimated that his lineup might closely resemble that which closed out the round-of-16 game in Sao Paulo. That could mean that Inter Milan's Rodrigo Palacio, a striker by usual trade, may line up in midfield; it was his interception from there and the pass that set up Messi to supply Di Maria's winner against the Swiss. The disappointing Fernando Gago is a most likely fall guy.
Central defender Federico Fernandez's performances so far, and especially in Sao Paulo, leave him on the chopping block for much of the Argentine media -- in favour of Manchester City warrior Martin Demichelis. "We have great confidence because he has always given good results in general terms," said Sabella, a dealer in faint praise of Fernandez.
Which leaves the forwards. Sergio Aguero, Messi's friend and favourite foil, is only likely to play from the bench against Belgium, if at all.
"He's doing quite well so we'll see how he responds to see if he can be part of the 23 on the bench," said Sabella of a striker hampered by injury after suffering the recurrence of the hamstring problem he first suffered at Tottenham in January.
Aguero's absence places further pressure on Gonzalo Higuain, who has suffered a dreadful tournament so far, although Sabella has made allowances. "He was the player who ran the most," he said of the Napoli striker's performance against Switzerland. "He tries to cooperate in occupying the spaces."
Such talk of occupation of space is part of there being almost zero pretence about Argentina's team servicing one man.
"There's a team that makes him stronger and makes him feel well," said Sabella, praising his other charges' assistance in helping Messi shine for the first time at a World Cup. "Four years ago he was heavily criticised. Now we say that we greatly depend on Messi."
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.