Messi determined to silence Argentina boo-boys
perhaps if you're Brazilian, the Copa America 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.
"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 No 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 U-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 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."
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 Forlan 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. (© Independent News Service)
Colombia v Peru,
Live Setanta Irl/ESPN 8.0.
Argentina v Uruguay
Live Setanta Irl/ESPN 11.15.
Brazil v Paraguay,
Live, tomorrow, Setanta Irl/ESPN 8.0.
Chile v Venezuela,
Live, tomorrow, Setanta Irl/ESPN 11.15.