Argentina vs Belgium World Cup 2014 preview: Pablo Zabaleta reveals Argentina's plan - 'Give the ball to Lionel Messi'

Zabaleta responds to criticism that team is over-dependent on one player by saying that it is a deliberate tactic

Sao Paulo

Argentina defender Pablo Zabaleta has revealed the team’s tactical plan for winning this World Cup: give the ball to Lionel Messi.

The Manchester City full-back was responding to criticism of his nation’s over-dependency on the player deemed by many the best in the world. But instead of denying that Argentina are a one-man team, Zabaleta admitted they had been banking on this all along.

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Messi collected his fourth successive man of the match award after engineering Tuesday’s late extra-time win over Switzerland, a game in which his team-mates delivered less than ever and Argentina’s “get it to Leo” tactic was even more pronounced. But Zabaleta insisted there was no shame in building an entire game and tournament strategy around one individual.

“We know he is our main player, our captain, the best player in the world,” the  29-year-old said. “This team is playing for him as we know how important Messi is for this team. Every time we recover the ball we try to pass to him as he is the best player we have in the team and he will score goals.”

Zabaleta in action against Switzerland Zabaleta in action against Switzerland  

With the nation only three games away from lifting a third World Cup, it is a little late to expect some of the coach Alex Sabella’s misfiring players to begin delivering now. That means a lot of responsibility being heaped on one man’s shoulders. To compound the burden, Zabaleta said Argentina were obsessed with bloodying the nose of their big local rivals. “We are a neighbour of Brazil; it’s always on our minds we’re competing in this country,” he observed. “You see it in every place we go – so many Argentines, including those who don’t have tickets, watching the World Cup away from the stadiums, in the streets, and I hope we give them happiness: the 40 million Argentines.”

The overwhelming impression from the army of Argentinian supporters here is that getting one over the Brazilians would make this an even sweeter triumph than 1978 at home or 1986 in Mexico.

 

They are the noisy neighbours; the irritating younger brother of a Brazilian nation which – despite perceptions – is more reserved than the gaucho country across its southern frontier. Some detect a Latin American inferiority complex at play behind all the Argentinian bluster. The Brazilians have the richer football history, after all.

The rivalry has been manifest in many ways, including a fight that broke out between Brazilians and Argentines in one of the corporate hospitality areas after Tuesday’s late 1-0 win over Switzerland. The Argentines are really grating on Brazil now. Their ubiquitous new song Brasil, decime que se siente (“Brazil, tell me how it feels”) was still ringing out in the cafes of Sao Paulo yesterday morning. These brash, noisy Argentines sense momentum building.

Read more: Why Brazilians hate 'arrogant' Argentina
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This is the weight of responsibility sitting on one diminutive 27-year-old’s shoulders. And Messi’s four man-of-the-match awards have been his response so far.

“That is what we expect from him; always that the best player in the world will make the difference in every game,” added Zabaleta.

The recipe for success may not be as straightforward as all this. Messi requires others on the field to feed off, rather than bulldozing his way through opposition singlehanded, as Diego Maradona always did. Zabaleta said that the comparisons between the past and present talisman were justified. “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,” he said. There have to be serious doubts about this line of argument, though time will tell.

When you are only two games away from a final the recent past begins to recede and matters far less. What lies ahead – Belgium in Brasilia on Saturday – is all that counts.  Zabaleta nodded vigorously to the suggestion that the late nature of Argentina’s wins against Iran and the Swiss have delivered a psychological boost. “Exactly,” he said.

“We know it is always difficult for the other team. You have to play during 90 minutes very well, as if you give [our strikers] space they will kill you for sure.”

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