Fickle fans simply helping to make Argentina stronger, warns Messi

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The Independent Football

Perhaps if you're Brazilian, this has been a tournament for fretting about the form of Neymar, but for everybody else it has been all about Lionel Messi.

For two games, Messi dominated the landscape by not playing well – was it tactical? Was it psychological? Did he, having left at 13, really care for his homeland? Then he took the headlines by playing brilliantly in Argentina's 3-0 win over Costa Rica.

And now, in the build-up to this evening's quarter-final against Uruguay, he has hit back at those who doubted him. "It's not the first time I've been through it with the media here in Argentina," he said. "It's not everybody, but I've lived through many similar situations, but the critics will not change my desire to come and play for the national team. I come here because I want to play and I always give my utmost."

Messi's relationship with his homeland is complex: most of the shirts in the shops bear his name and the number 10, and there have been chants for him before kick-off at each game. Argentina's fans want him to do well, but if things go wrong, he takes the blame.

"The insults of the public annoy me and everybody in the group," Messi said, "but we know we've done things right. None of us likes to hear the crowd whistle, and we've suffered a lot of criticism, but that's helped us and we've become stronger as a group."

In the first two games, though, against Bolivia and Colombia, the criticism was largely deserved. Argentina were listless, the link-up between Carlos Tevez and Messi non-existent.

The radical changes to the side for the final group game, against Costa Rica, produced a much more cohesive performance. It was, though, only Costa Rica, and their Under-23 side at that, and Uruguay – harsh punishment for failing to top the group – will be a far severer test.

As against Costa Rica, Messi will again start on the right, rather than in the central role he had occupied earlier in the competition. "Playing through the middle, I didn't find much space," he said. "Fielding me out there, with fewer people around, it was different.

"Hopefully it'll be a similar thing against Uruguay and I'll find those spaces, but Uruguay are a great team."

Uruguay themselves had an awkward start, with the Napoli forward Edinson Cavani first out of form and now injured. A switch to a 4-4-1-1, though, with Diego Forland behind Luis Suarez, brought a much improved display in their third group game.

The organised but limited Peru, the opposition for Colombia, topped Argentina's group. In tomorrow's quarter-finals, Paraguay face Brazil, who like Argentina and Uruguay started slowly before finding their form in their third group game, while Chile, probably the most fluent side so far, take on a fast-improving Venezuela.

Four Stars So Far

Marcelo Estigarribia, Paraguay

The left-winger destroyed Dani Alves in Paraguay's 2-2 draw with Brazil. Quick, direct and intelligent, he has been linked with a move to the Premier League and, with only a year left on his contract at Le Mans, would be available for around £1.5m.

Adrian Ramos, Colombia

He was guilty of an appalling miss against Argentina, but the Hertha Berlin forward has otherwise been superb, supporting his full-back and offering attacking threat from the left of Colombia's 4-1-4-1.

Tomas Rincon, Venezuela

Venezuela are yet to concede from open play in the tournament, the main reason for which has been the Hamburg anchor's form at the back of midfield. Dogged, but also comfortable on the ball.

Alexis Sanchez, Chile

The Udinese right-winger is apparently poised for a big-money move to Barcelona, and his performances so far in the tournament have proved why. He has quick feet and a quicker brain.

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