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Form and formation the keys in battle for a winning edge

SIX Spanish league titles, three Champions League winner's medals and four Ballon d'Or awards all played their part in influencing Barcelona, just last month, to pay an estimated £16m-a-year to keep Lionel Messi as the jewel in their crown.

The Argentina captain, however, insists that lifting the World Cup in the footballing cathedral of Rio's Maracana in four days' time would top anything he has achieved in his glittering career in the Camp Nou. For him, this is a prize, quite clearly, that has no monetary equivalent.

"As a player, winning a World Cup is the best there is," said Messi ahead of tonight's semi-final meeting with Holland in Sao Paulo. "It's something you dream about when you are a kid and it never disappears.

"I have asked my Barcelona team-mates Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and [Gerard] Pique what it is like to lift the trophy, and they couldn't explain.

"We will do everything to make this dream a reality. To play a World Cup final with the great atmosphere of the Maracana is something every player dreams of, but first we have to make sure we get there."

Without Messi, Argentina would possibly never have reached this stage of the competition. His four goals in five games have been crucial, but he has no great desire to end the tournament as the top scorer.

"I'd prefer the World Cup than the Golden Boot. Always," he said.

Normally, when Argentina are involved, it is the opposition who do most of the worrying about tweaking their tactics in an attempt to nullify one of the world's most mercurial players. Things are a little different going into tonight's encounter, though.

Stopping Argentina's on-field figurehead will most certainly have occupied the mind of Louis van Gaal, but the Dutchman's opposite number, Alejandro Sabella, appears to be the man with the greater headaches of the two.

In addition to working out how to deal with the absence of the injured Angel di Maria, one of the few players to have provided meaningful support to Messi thus far, the 59-year-old, once of Sheffield United, is also understood to have his focus very much placed on taking Arjen Robben out of the game.

It is easier said than done. It may also involve returning to the 5-3-2 formation that sparked such controversy at the beginning of the tournament.

Messi has already made it very clear that he believes Argentina, no matter the opposition, should operate with a 4-3-3 system. He stated it, in no uncertain terms, in a press conference in the wake of a hard-fought 2-1 win over Bosnia in the first group game, which saw Sabella start with a 5-3-2 and switch at half-time by bringing on Gonzalo Higuain.

Sabella continues to believe that it may be a successful system against the counter-attacking Dutch, though. Going by all reports, he is toying with the idea of dropping Lavezzi and going with a back five of Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis, Ezequiel Garay, Jose Basanta and Marco Rojo.

How Messi would react to that remains to be seen.

Whatever happens, Di Maria is likely to be replaced by Enzo Perez, who came on for him in the first half of the 1-0 win over Belgium.

"We know we are playing against a team that is best at hitting on the counter with speed," said Messi's Barcelona team-mate, Javier Mascherano.

"We need to make sure we don't lose the ball unnecessarily. Concentration will be key, along with the way we set our stall out in the match."

Argentina certainly need more of a team display than they have produced so far. As Mascherano points out, however, it is almost impossible not to look to a man such as Messi when that little something extra is required.

"Messi is the world's best player," he remarked. "He makes us believe we can be champions. He's from outer space."

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