By Patrick Johnston
BRASILIA (Reuters) - When you have a player like Lionel Messi in your team why would you not lean on him to lead you to World Cup glory?
Pundits and fans have been quick to lambaste Argentina's dependence on the inspirational forward to carry them to a third World Cup but coach Alejandro Sabella was not amused by the suggestion.
"Four years ago he was criticized now we say we are being told we greatly depend on Messi so it is not easy," Sabella told reporters at the Brasilia national stadium ahead of their quarter-final against Belgium on Saturday.
"I repeat any team that has a player like Messi will depend a lot on him...he is the best player in the world but there is team work also."
The Barcelona forward has scored four of Argentina's seven goals in Brazil, picking up the slack left by his fellow attackers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain who are yet to find the back of the net because of injury and form problems.
The widespread praise for Messi is in marked contrast to the criticism he received at the last World Cup in South Africa where his perceived low-key displays were cited as part of the reason his side crashed out in the last eight to Germany.
That seemed like a distant memory on Tuesday when a mazy Messi dribble set up Angel Di Maria to score an extra-time winner to beat Switzerland in the 118th minute of their last-16 clash in Sao Paulo.
But Sabella pointed to the tackle by substitute forward Rodrigo Palacio in midfield that set Messi up to stride through a tiring Swiss defense and lay the ball perfectly at the feet of Di Maria to stroke home first time.
"If Palacio hadn’t been there we wouldn't have had a goal for Argentina," the coach said.
"I want a team that supports Messi, that's strengthening him, that helps him to feel good, so that he can perform as he has been doing."
Saturday's match against Belgium, who have also won all four matches at the tournament, could see Aguero returning to action after missing the match against the Swiss.
The Manchester City forward injured a leg muscle in the 3-2 Group win over Nigeria but took part in training on Friday without any obvious discomfort, suggesting Argentina's 'fab four' - the striker, Messi, Higuain and Di Maria - would be reunited.
Sabella said his team had "not reached the level they had wanted to reach" and would need to be careful against a very strong Belgium side, but was optimistic of avoiding a third straight last-eight exit.
"Yes it would be frustrating (to go out again), we have the hope, faith, confidence that we will move on to the next one," he said.
"I believe that Belgium has a very good team, they have a golden generation. I remember in 1982 they also had a golden generation and beat Argentina," he said, referring to the 1-0 win the Europeans claimed in the group phase in Barcelona.
"They have a lot of players that play in English and Spanish leagues. Very powerful team and we will have to be cautious when we don’t have the ball."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)