The Real Madrid midfielder is out of the World Cup semi-final against Netherlands on Wednesday - and now Argentina need a complete re-think to get the best out of their star man
By Greg Stobart in Brazil
As much as it makes a great story to say that Diego Maradona won the World Cup on his own in 1986, the reality is that he needed some help along the way from his Argentina team-mates.
Jorge Valdano scored four goals during that tournament, Jorge Burruchaga struck the winner in the final, Sergio Batista snarled in midfield and gave Maradona the platform to work his magic.
Twenty-eight years on, Argentina again boast the best player in the world and rely on him as the focal point of the team. But Lionel Messi cannot do it entirely on his own, either.
As he prepares for Wednesday’s semi-final clash with the Netherlands in Sao Paulo, Messi will reflect that the level of responsibility on his shoulders will be even greater without his right-hand man: Angel Di Maria.
Argentina have won all five of their World Cup matches so far by just one goal, with Messi scoring four in the tournament and providing the crucial assist for Di Maria’s extra-time winner against Switzerland in the last 16.
The thigh injury sustained by the Real Madrid star during the quarter-final against Belgium means the Albiceleste supporters will not see a repeat of that combination against Holland.
While Messi has been Argentina’s matchwinner, Di Maria is the man who allowed coach Alejandro Sabella to build a team that could get the best out of the Barcelona star. Shifting Di Maria from a winger into midfield coincided with a 14-match unbeaten run in qualifying that saw the team finish top of the South American table.
It worked so well that Carlo Ancelotti copied the trick for Real Madrid, lining Di Maria up in a central position behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale.
For club and country, Di Maria’s role is to provide the bullets for the two best players in the world with his bursts of speed and eye for a pass. Last season for Real Madrid, he produced the most assists in Europe and twice as many as his closest rival in La Liga.
In the system Argentina first used in qualifying – essentially a four-man attack – Di Maria became the perfect player to transition into attacks and his understanding with Messi has been evident in Brazil, not least for that last-gasp winner against the Swiss.
For all Messi’s ability and his brilliant scoring record, he did not score at the World Cup in 2010 or the Copa America in 2011 when playing in a team and system that was not set up to get the most out of his talents.
Without Di Maria, Sabella needs a Plan B to make sure Messi can shine – or Argentina will be going home.
The 59-year-old is weighing up a complete rethink in formation and tactics, with suggestions that he could line up against Holland in a 4-4-2 or try again with the 5-3-2 system that misfired in the group stage opener against Bosnia.
There is no like-for-like replacement for Di Maria, so either Enzo Perez or Maxi Rodriguez, two solid but uninspiring players, will come in to make up a more functional side.
The added complication for Messi and Argentina is that there are issues concerning the rest of the supporting cast. Sergio Aguero is fit to play against the Netherlands but will surely be lacking sharpness after a muscle injury, while Gonzalo Higuain has scored just one goal during the tournament.
Messi has been at the centre of almost every Argentina attack, but no-one can be sure whether the 27-year-old will be able to keep it up without some help.
He is always capable of producing a moment of magic, and he has already done it in this tournament: a beautiful strike against Bosnia, a last-minute winner against Iran, two goals against Nigeria and an extra-time assist against Switzerland.
Messi is capable of winning the World Cup for his country with a couple of moments of brilliance in the remainder of the tournament.
But even Maradona needed a second in command. And it will be far more difficult for Messi without Angel Di Maria.