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Having been severely criticized throughout his career for not playing at his best for Argentina, 2012 finally sees Lionel Messi break his international hoodoo

 Aditya Bajaj
 Comment | World Cup 2014
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When he dons the Catalan colours, he’s celebrated all around the world as arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen. When in national colours, he is criticized and deemed unpatriotic but by a handful of so-called pundits, who wouldn’t miss the rare opportunity, to scrutinize someone the world deems as flawless.  

Well, a sad year indeed for those who thrive on his failures because finally, Lionel Messi has broken his international hoodoo to become the go-to man for his country just like the one he has been for his club.

The chances of him failing for Barcelona are as rare as the appearances of the Haley’s comet. But until last year, the same could not be said about his performances for the national team. It must have been some criticism for the three-time Ballon D’Or winner to have his own fans back home make condescending comments about how he has always put his club before his country, failing to feel the same passion for his national colours as he does for his beloved club, without fail week in, week out.


Lionel Messi with Argentina
Year Appearances Goals Assists
2005 5 0 0
2006 7 2 2
2007 14 6 3
2008 8 2 1
2009 10 3 2
2010 10 2 2
2011 13 4 10
2012 7 11 1

     Lionel Messi | An upturn in form this year as compared to his previous performances

The fans of Argentina have longed to see the Messi of Barcelona turn up for them, often getting the sense that he’s more of a Catalan than he is an Argentine having been brought up in Spain since the age of 13. Perhaps this pressure got to him whenever he lined up in the famous white and blue as proven by his statistics at the international stage having scored just 19 goals in about 67 matches he had played for Argentina until last year. That’s almost a rate of 0.28 goals per game.

Now, that is some dip in form for someone who has scored at an astonishing rate of 1.04 over the last four seasons at Barcelona!

One thing about Messi is that he has never gone overboard defending his below average performances unlike his biggest rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who has often lost his mind whenever criticized while playing for Portugal. The biggest reason perhaps, was the fact that like most of us (even though we find it safe to deny it socially), he knows somewhere it’s the collective failure of the team rather than his own that has often let him down with Argentina.

I have never cared about what the press say and I will not start now. The only thing I care about is what the fans say... no-one likes to be insulted. I come to the national team because I feel it it is part of me, and I try to stay distant from all this

First of all, Argentina have always been blessed with excessive number of  talented forwards with the current team boasting the likes of Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Sergio Aguero and Messi himself just to name a few. Now you cannot have the collective brilliance of five of the world’s most talented forwards leading the side to glory because its common sense that a balanced team needs a midfield and a solid defense to make up the numbers.

Argentina no longer has the rock solid partnership of the last decade like the one of Roberto Ayala and Walter Samuel with Javier Zanetti making his marauding runs from the right hand side of the channel assisted by the likes of Juan Pablo Sorin. In fact the recent defence has been the weakest link of the side and like it is said, a team is only as strong as its weakest link.

As for the midfield, there are hardly any creative options with a central pairing of two holding midfielders often proving to be a case of protecting a faltering defense more than helping in building attacks with Javier Mascherano often partnered by someone like Fernando Gago to provide rigidity at the center of the park. The only creative option they have is of Valencia's Ever Banega who isn't a starter per say for Argentina.

In such a scenario, the onus often falls on the best player to provide some magic and take responsibility on behalf of the team upfront and that’s where Lionel Messi’s international career has often been stunted as compared to the one he enjoys with his club.

In Barcelona, he has the luxury of being served by the creative geniuses of Xavi and Iniesta which obviously has been of great help with the Spanish duo making sure that the Argentine worries about nothing else apart from scoring. Now many have implied, on account of him going missing on the score sheets while on national duty, that in their absence, Messi is not even close to the kind of player he is when they are around but that’s been the most ruthless and careless assessment of a player who at only 25, has set the ceiling of brilliance so high, that perhaps there might never be another footballer of his caliber in the future.

With Argentina, as implied above, he is faced with a completely different scenario where he has to change his game in order to be the ‘provider’ rather than the ‘scorer’ so he can make up for the creative deficiency in the team. That’s where the balance of his game changes, and hence the difference not in ‘the level of his performances’ but his style of play with the national side, something people often confuse with the ones lacking passion or patriotism.

It’s indeed sad, but then one cannot be blamed for criticizing a player who throughout his career has seen himself being judged on the number of goals he scores in any given match.

However, the biggest stumbling block with Argentina has been the tactics its various managers have applied failing to make the most of Messi to inspire the team.

While Diego Maradona during his tenure kept playing him as a ‘trequartista’ of sorts sandwiching him in a 4-1-2-1-2 between the strikers and the midfield, his successor Sergio Daniel Batista did better by employing the 4-2-3-1 with him behind the lone striker. If the former restricted his freedom of movement, the most integral part of his game, the latter made the team reap the benefits of his assists but at the same time depriving it of his goal scoring abilities. More startling was the fact, that during his tenure as the national coach, Maradona had restricted Messi from even entering his own half!

 SABELLA'S 4-4-2 'Double 6'
The formation has gifted Messi acres of space in the center to express himself

Current Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella, though, seems to have successfully found a system over the past one year that has allowed Messi complete freedom around a striker much like what he does at Barcelona albeit not in a 4-3-3 but in a 4-4-2 ‘double 6’ he seems to have finally adopted for the national team currently sitting atop the 2014 World Cup Qualifying table in South America.

The results have been there for everyone to see, as this year he has scored an astonishing 11 goals in 7 forming a stable partnership with Sergio Aguero whenever he’s fit, or looking seemingly comfortable around a pure striker like Gonzalo Higuain (a failed combo in the past) with both leading the goal scoring charts in the qualifiers. The amount of space he has been given by Sabella on the pitch has proved to be the key in his sudden upturn of form.

Right from his hat trick against Switzerland back in March of this year, to the more recent brace against Uruguay this past weekend, the Barcelona striker has been either scoring or assisting or doing both for his country finally undoing the ‘myth’ that he is a failure with the national team.

Messi is widely considered as the greatest player on the planet today, but to be hailed as the greatest ever, perhaps, he may have to win the biggest prize in football with Argentina in two years time in Brazil which does not seem unlikely any more with Sabella building the foundation of his team around the Rosario born talisman.

The Argentine fans are happy having found their boy, but there is definitely more to come as the floodgates have opened.

If Messi can’t stop scoring, 2014 may be the year when Argentina finally wins the World Cup and we may be lucky enough to officially, rather finally acknowledge him as the greatest player the game has ever seen.

Well, the countdown to eternal greatness has begun.

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