Portugal might be fine relying on big Cristiano to deliver when necessary, but Argentina have unfortunately learned that the same cannot be said about Lionel Messi. The man tops the charts in almost all figures this season but the World Cup has been a rude awakening for the national team who clearly look to him to be their main creative and goal-scoring hub.
Gonzalo Higuain has played 30 minutes of football this tournament, with teammate and world-beater Paulo Dybala playing only roughly 15. With the exclusion of Serie A top scorer Mauro Icardi, you would have expected to see the Juventus duo make more than just a cameo appearance but it seems that George Sampaouli was expecting Messi and Aguero to deliver the goods, noting that the latter has only one world cup goal in his career.
The world was expecting Lionel Messi to come out and match Ronaldo’s opening hattrick and prove his worth at the top of the pile in the greatest players of all time. Now Cristiano is well on his way to his next Ballon D’or and Messi looks likely to be leaving the World Cup at the first knock-out round, in which Argentina will be faced with France.
Instead of Dybala, Higuain and Icardi (a formidable attack), the Argentine squad has relied on an ageing Angel Di-Maria to pick up the creative burden when Messi is out of the picture. We have seen names such as Meza and Pavon as part of Argentina’s attack when the world expected so much more. Often decisions such as these constitute a manager’s plan to keep squad cohesion maximised but in hindsight it seems a waste of talent to omit such superstars from the tournament.
Messi’s unenviable fate
More goals than Salah. More assists than De-Bruyne. More dribbles than Hazard. It is fate that puts Messi in that Argentina team, but watching the performances against Croatia and particularly Iceland, it’s clear that he is simply not enough to bring a lethargic looking team into the top-tier of international football.
The match against Iceland saw a huge amount of shots, but clearly to no avail. Even with the argued greatest of all time, Argentina lacked the cutting edge to really make a mark on the tournament. It is this perhaps that will be remembered when the people of Argentina remember Messi and Maradona. Both unbelievable talents and performers, but one drove his country to true greatness while the other fell painstakingly short at so many occasions. It is what drives the Cristiano Ronaldo argument further forward. One would be hard pressed to argue the Portuguese is a more talented footballer than Barcelona’s talisman, but he instead has the drive and raw tenacity to push his team (whether that be Real Madrid or Portugal) to the very heights.
Now, learning that Messi simply cannot do what Ronaldo does, Argentina seemed doomed to fail as soon as the game plan was revealed to be to place Messi, Aguero and Di-Maria in a bang average Argentina team and hope for the best.
Perhaps, given the man’s irrefutable footballing intelligence, Messi will have one more World Cup in a deeper role where he can create. Yet it would seem that his stardom and his country’s reliance upon him has come to little fruition. One would argue that his Portuguese counterpart has a far more well-rounded side behind him, but you simply cannot ignore the lack of magic we have all come to expect of Barcelona’s little Argentina magician of late.
Sampaouli must make changes
Yet it is the final game-day of the group stages that provide a glimmer of hope for Messi and Argentina’s tournament. After a Messi-eque Messi goal and a Victor Moses spot-kick, Marcos Rojo put his nation safely in second spot in their group with a fantastic weak foot volley. In terms of the eternal battle between the planets greatest footballers, Ronaldo missed a penalty to finish a draw with Iran while Messi showed the world he is not to be forgotten as his team just about made it through to the next round.
Ronaldo may have had all the headlines in weeks gone by, but both now sit equal in their respective groups with the promise of bigger occasions to come. The Argentine people will surely be hoping that Sampaouli puts together a far more convincing side. We have still not seen the best (or anything) of Paulo Dybala, who could surely start in any other team at Russia 2018. The future is yet ambiguous for the South-American former runners up.