BEIJING (AFP) - Players and coaches heaped praise on Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi after he helped defending champions Argentina into a glamour Olympic semi-final against Brazil.
The influential 21-year-old, considered by many to be the best player in the business, was instrumental in helping his side come through a tough test against the Netherlands 2-1 in their quarter-final.
Messi, who almost didn't play here with his club wanting him back in Spain in time for the Champions League third qualifying round matches, scored the first goal and set up the second for Angel di Maria in extra-time.
"He is one of the best football players in the world," said Argentina coach Sergio Batista.
"The whole team had a great performace in the match. We won the game because of the endeavour of the team."
Even Dutch coach Foppe De Haan was full of praise, and tipped Argentina to beat Brazil on Tuesday.
"I like Messi, even though he's on the other team," he said. "When he gets the ball he is unbelievable. Argentina are better than Brazil, they have a modern passing game."
Like Argentina, Brazil needed extra-time to beat Cameroon 2-0 with Rafael Sobis chipping the goalkeeper to break the deadlock.
Real Madrid's Marcelo made it safe with the second goal four minutes later after leadup work by AC Milan's Ronaldinho and substitute Thiago Neves.
Brazil have won the World Cup five times but have never managed Olympic gold, something they are desperate to put right.
As they work on a plan to shatter Brazil's dreams once again, Argentina plan to consult the legendary Maradona on how best to approach the game.
He arrived in China on Saturday to get behind the team, watching from the VIP box as they beat the Netherlands.
"He came to meet the whole team on Saturday afternoon, he was very kind and cheered everyone up, encouraged everyone, and he told me how to play in this match, like not to make long passes," said striker Sergio Aguero.
"I'll meet him later to talk about the Brazil game."
Brazil have now scored 11 goals in four matches and have yet to concede a goal in the Beijing tournament, adding to Argentinian concerns.
In the other semi-final, Nigeria will play surprise package Belgium, who sent European powerhouse Italy packing 3-2.
Belgium played most of the match a man down after defender Thomas Vermaelen was red-carded early but still managed to go through, which pleased captain Maarten Martens.
"The team is always hard working, but also has some very good qualities," he said.
"Most importantly we all want to achieve something. We won by giving 100 percent. It was really hard but everyone had a lot of belief during the game, even with a player being sent off early on."
They face a tough task against Nigeria in their semi-final on Tuesday after the African giants proved too good for Ivory Coast, winning 2-0.
In the end it was Nigeria's inherited experience from six Olympics and one gold medal which paid off, and coach Samson Siasia said it was their best performance yet.
"Tactically we were very sound and we took our chances," he said.
"Every team who has come to the Olympics wants a gold medal, but it is not easy. There are many obstacles but, of course, having come this far we want the gold now.
"The semi-final is going to be very tough, but it is possible."
|Á. di María||105'|
|L. Messi||14' 81'|
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