Brasilia: Lionel Messi is like water in the desert, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said after his team beat Belgium 1-0 to reach the World Cup semi-finals on Saturday.
Four-time World Player of the Year Messi failed to score and even squandered a clear scoring chance in stoppage time as the Argentines did the bare minimum to reach the last four for the first time since 1990.
But his mere presence on the field appeared to inhibit Belgium who were strangely cautious even when forced to chase the game after Gonzalo Higuain’s early goal.
“I think Messi played really well. It’s not just about scoring goals, it’s about having possession of the ball, drawing in three opponents and then giving the ball to a teammate in an advantageous position,” Sabella told reporters.
“Every time he gets the ball, it represents hope for all of us and a threatening situation for our opponents. Regardless of whether he scores goals or not, his influence is decisive.
“A game has many aspects, apart from goals,” he added. “When you have a player such as Messi, who never, or almost never, loses the ball, it’s water in the desert and not just when he scores.
“In the other game (against Switzerland), he gave a great pass to Angel Di Maria, and today, sometimes the ground was dry, and he gave us air every time he got the ball.”
Argentina seemed happy to hand the initiative to Belgium after their early breakthrough.
“I’m very happy for the players who played an excellent game. I’m very happy for them and the Argentines who have waited 24 years for us to be among the best four in the world,” said Sabella.
“But we have to conserve energy. We played extra time (against Switzerland) and four games in a row at midday, so we will see how we recover.”
Higuain, however, made it clear that he wasn’t desperate to score.
“I wasn’t getting desperate about scoring because I knew I was going to get a goal sooner or later,” said Higuain, who exceeded even Messi in the popularity stakes in the stadium’s mixed zone after the match.
“Obviously, I’m very happy, especially with this being such a historically important win for Argentina.”
Happy to end his goal quest, Higuain added: “They’ve been asking me since Day I when the goal was going to come and I’ve always given them the same answer: ‘I’m working on it’.
Reflecting on the injury he picked up at the end of the domestic season in Italy, Higuain said: “It’s not been an easy situation for me. I very nearly didn’t make the World Cup at all, but fortunately, everything has worked out and I’ve been able to get that goal.”