Sao Paulo: Argentina’s dependence on Lionel Messi has been increasingly evident in the World Cup, with Pablo Zabaleta admitting the rest of the team is simply “playing for him”.
“Every time we recover the ball, we try to pass to him as he’s the best player we have in the team and he will score goals,” said the 29-year-old defender.
“We know he’s our main player, our captain, the best player in the world.
“This team is playing for him as we know how important Messi is for this team. We’re so lucky to have Messi in Argentina.”
That dependence has appeared extreme at times — not least in the way Argentina laboured to beat Switzerland 1-0 in extra-time to set up a quarter final with Belgium in Brasilia on Saturday.
It has even created the perception that the rest of the Argentina squad has become unbalanced because of the way coach Alejandro Sabella has set up the team with, it seems, only Messi in mind.
The lack of creativity in midfield — with Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago — has also placed the onus on Messi to not just take the chances but manufacture them, as he did with Ángel Di María’s winning goal against the Swiss.
Four matches into this World Cup, Messi has scored four of Argentina’s seven goals and produced four Man of the Match performances in four victories, all earned by the most slender of margins.
“That is what we expect from him, always that the best player in the world will make the difference in every game,” Zabaleta said. “Even more when you see that he’s enjoying it himself, the World Cup.”
Despite the unconvincing performances, Argentina have preserved their pre-tournament status as favourites, with Messi’s importance reviving memories of how Diego Maradona drove the nation to their last triumph in 1986.
“Messi has been one of the best players in the world for many years and you always expect a lot of things from them, like Maradona many years ago,” Zabaleta said.
“That is why we need to keep working hard. This team is doing well in the World Cup. We try always to keep a clean sheet as we know we have quality enough to score goals.”
Not only have Argentina won all their matches by a single goal but, in the wins over the Swiss and Iran, they have struck late.
“We have great individual players to play better and better and keep improving,” the Manchester City right-back said. “The most important thing is to keep winning. Even if you don’t play in your best form it is important to win the game.
“This is the World Cup and we are talking seven games if we want to reach the final or semi-final. So this is the way probably we want to play in the next few games.”
Zabaleta conceded that a feature of the tournament is that some of the smaller nations — such as the Swiss — have proved extremely hard to beat.
“Every game is still difficult,” Zabaleta said. “We should have respect for every team. No one game will be really easy. We must be very concentrated and focused on what we are doing. It will be very tough.”