FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifiers: Lionel Messi still carries Argentina’s burden; it’s time the rest extended a helping hand

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“Luckily the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentinian. We must be sure everything does not depend on Leo [Messi] but today he brought his great ability. I told the group: Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi. We should help him be in the World Cup.”

In the end, Lionel Messi helped himself and his country. Jorge Sampaoli’s words reflected his state of gratefulness. Messi, not for the first time, pulled his team out of trouble. Deep trouble. Still not loved by Argentinian fans, you say? That’s an old story.

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a hat-trick against Ecuador. Reuters

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a hat-trick against Ecuador. Reuters

Before Tuesday night, Argentina had won only once in Ecuador at the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa. The previous victory was achieved 15 years ago, under the leadership of Marcelo Bielsa. Sampaoli, of course, is heavily influenced by Bielsa’s ideas. But unlike this time, Argentina cantered through that qualifying campaign. Bielsa had a supremely talented squad–which went on to crash out in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup. However, there was no Messi-like totemic figure.

The Barcelona legend arguably holds a place like no other in Argentinean football history. Even when Diego Maradona was the obvious leader of the side in the 1986 World Cup, Jorge Burruchaga featured adeptly as his foil. Throughout that tournament, Burruchaga was the option Argentina used whenever Maradona found himself heavily marked.

Despite the bounteous football riches at the disposal of the current national side, everybody else seems anaemic in Messi’s presence. Mauro Icardi discussed last week how other star players found it difficult to adjust to the playmaker’s genius. Coaches have had to adjust too, with relatively little success. Sampaoli is the third Argentina manager for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Before Tuesday, the Albiceleste had drawn all of its three competitive matches under him. No wonder he was relieved that Argentina’s talisman saved the day.

Messi’s importance to his country’s cause was far too obvious during the current qualifying campaign. Argentina won only one of the eight games he missed, seven of them to injury and the other to Bolivia on account of his four-match suspension which was reduced on appeal. The 2014 World Cup finalist scored only 19 goals in the 18 matches of the qualifying campaign; Messi scored seven of them in 10 appearances.

It is hard to imagine Argentina’s plight if the skipper had stuck to his retirement decision last year. Thankfully, he was coaxed back into the side. All the criticism and the Argentine Football Association’s strange ways had told on Messi. The pressure and the worries were too much for a player who was essentially carrying the team.

After the defeat in the Copa America final last year, which prompted Messi’s retirement, Sergio Aguero had revealed what the result meant to Argentina’s all-time top scorer. “Unfortunately, the one that leaves most affected is Leo Messi after his penalty miss. This is the worst that I’ve seen him in the changing room.” The final was just a few days after Messi had expressed his frustration at the AFA for a flight delay from Houston to New Jersey during the tournament.

Expectedly, the penalty miss in the Copa America final reawakened the chatter about Messi’s inability to carry his team over the line. How stupid does that seem now? Ecuador will not go to Russia but the stadium in Quito remains one of the toughest places to visit, on account of the location’s altitude. Argentina’s underwhelming record there is a fair reflection of the challenge.

In the three qualifiers under Sampaoli, his side had scored just once–an own goal. It arrived in Ecuador with little to mention for confidence. The diffidence has been coupled with desperation for some time now. Over the entire qualifying phase, Argentina used 43 players. The rich talent pool may have something to do with it but short-termism has been the country’s bane in football for long.

Among the churn, Messi’s selection has arguably been the easiest decision; although Sergio Romero and Angel di Maria did feature in all of the 18 qualifying matches. As the numbers bear out, Argentina is a different side with Messi in it. Of course, his superlative genius will improve any team. But the dependence on Messi has grown over the past year.

Sampaoli’s ideas, though, may still rejuvenate the two-time world champions. The struggles during qualifying do not always determine a side’s World Cup fortunes. An in-form Messi will only make the case that Argentina will be no pushover in Russia.

However it remains to be seen whether Sampaoli is able to achieve what, arguably, no previous manager can claim to have done in the Messi years. The goal is to harness the skipper’s excellence while ensuring that nobody else feels limited in his presence. Even Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina at the 2014 World Cup was a largely functional side.

It could be argued that Sampaoli is the best man to transform his country into a thriving attacking force. His record with Chile and Sevilla fills one with confidence. When he arrived, the manager was not helped by the situation in which he found himself. With four games to go and Argentina’s fate hanging in balance, results dominated the conversation. Perhaps, in the months leading up to the World Cup, we will see Sampaoli put his stamp over the national side.

But whatever happens going forward, Argentina’s dependence on Messi will loom large. It is not merely a tactical conundrum; the question binds the team’s collective psychology too. How to ensure Argentina and Messi complement each other? For now, it is only the latter who is keeping his end of the bargain. Like Sampaoli suggested, the rest of the squad owe a lot to Messi. For them, the best place to show gratitude will be on the football pitch.

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Published Date: Oct 11, 2017 08:05 pm | Updated Date: Oct 11, 2017 08:05 pm

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