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Argentina have not won the World Cup since their legendary No.10 propelled them to victory 28 years ago but, in the Barcelona star, La Albiceleste finally have a talisman again

By Matt Furniss

Lionel Messi’s standing among the greats of world football, past and present, has always carried an asterisk. Despite a plethora of domestic and European titles and multiple Ballon d’Or wins, a nagging doubt has always remained: can the Barcelona star carry Argentina to World Cup greatness and, in doing so, finally escape the shadow of his nation’s favourite son?

There has long been a sense in his homeland that Messi is more Catalan than Argentine, a player who has – not always through any fault of his own – struggled to replicate his club form on the international stage and never come close to hitting the heights sets by Diego Maradona.

Across all competitions, the 27-year-old has 354 goals in 419 competitive matches for Barca – including a record 91 strikes in 2012 alone. That is a goals-to-games ratio of 0.84, but, prior to the World Cup in Brazil, his scoring rate in the blue and white of Argentina stood at just 0.44, a much more modest return.

In eight World Cup outings prior to this summer’s tournament, he had mustered just one single goal – the last of six in La Albiceleste’s drubbing of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. He was an unused sub as the side were knocked out against Germany that year, and likewise failed to make an impact in South Africa.

But the World Cup’s return to South America has seen Messi finally reproduce his Barcelona best for Argentina. His mazy dribble and finish against Bosnia-Herzegovina, his rasping last-minute winner against Iran and his dizzying brace against Nigeria secured his nation’s passage into the knockout rounds. If Argentina are to lift the famous trophy, they will do so clinging onto the coattails of Messi.

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Their 1-0 victory over Belgium on Saturday means they have reached the semi-final stage for the first time since 1990, where they eventually lost in the final to Germany. Now they take on the Netherlands buoyed by the knowledge that they have progressed from all three of their previous World Cup semi-final ties, but also knowing that their hopes remain very much upon Messi’s shoulders.

Despite not scoring in Argentina’s two knockout ties at these finals so far, Messi has been the star performer behind the success of Alejandro Sabella’s side in Brazil. So far he has bagged four goals and provided one assist, meaning he has had a direct involvement in 62.5 per cent of his side’s goals, a figure only Colombia’s James Rodriguez (66.7%) can better.

Messi has also created more chances (19), attempted more shots (15) and embarked on more dribbles (50) than any other Argentine player at the tournament.

If Messi needed to match Maradona’s achievements for the national team by single-handedly masterminding a World Cup tilt, then he is going the right way about it. Where previously, in 2006 and 2010, he mustered just one goal and two assists – providing ammunition that he was not worthy of the GOAT tag his countryman contested with Pele – now he is delivering when it matters most.

Maradona’s own legend, meanwhile, cannot be overstated, and any doubts over his star quality – and there are many after several high-profile misdemeanours have taken their toll on his reputation over the years – can be dispelled with one look at his performances in Mexico 28 years ago.

Having been marked out of a last 16 game by the rugged Italian pair of Gaetano Scirea and Claudio Gentile in Spain four years earlier, Maradona arrived in Mexico with a major point to prove. A broken leg picked up during an ill-fated spell at Barcelona in the aftermath of his World Cup ’82 disappointment at first threatened his career before fuelling the fires of desire to shine on the biggest stage of all. Mexican conditions were expected to favour a Latin winner of the tournament and Argentina, led by their little magician, certainly didn’t disappoint.

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Coach Carlos Bilardo handed the then Napoli player the captain’s armband beforehand and Maradona responded with a string of performances that left an indelible mark in the memories of football fans around the world. Of his four World Cup finals appearances, 1986 was undoubtedly Maradona’s crowning achievement.

His influence on Argentina’s triumph in Mexico was overwhelming, with the almost untouchable No.10 involved in an incredible 10 of his team’s 15 goals in the tournament. He assisted more goals (5), created more goalscoring chances (27) and embarked on three times as many dribbles (90) as any other player at the 1986 finals – all this despite being a marked man; being fouled at least twice as often as any other player (53).

They are numbers seemingly impossible to match, yet Messi’s goals/assists contribution this year is just 4.1% less – though he has, admittedly, come up against far fewer hatchet men than Maradona.

Should Argentina lift the famous trophy in the Maracana next week, then Messi will undoubtedly be the driving force behind La Albiceleste’s campaign – especially with their other creative star, Angel Di Maria, now sidelined. And, should Messi maintain his current high standards, then not only can he claim World Cup glory, but also exorcise a demon that has plagued his illustrious career and finally silence the many detractors who have contested his worthiness to even be mentioned in the same breathe as Maradona.