BY BRENDON NETTO | Follow @BrendonNetto
The debate over whether or not Lionel Messi should be regarded alongside the greats of football like Pele and Diego Maradona continues to rumble on. The Barcelona man won an astounding four consecutive Ballon d’Or titles which stand testament to his genius yet his lack of success on the international stage remains a void in a sensational career thus far.
Messi’s playing days are far from over but the 2014 World Cup presents him with the best chance he’ll ever have at clinching glory with Argentina and finally silencing his doubters. For a number of reasons, this is the opportune moment for him to earn his place among those legends of the beautiful game.
The little Argentine could never quite replicate his club form when playing for the national side and came under heavy criticism. He wasn’t as influential when playing from the right wing and even when tested in the false nine role which he reveled in for Barcelona, he couldn’t deliver.
He misses the service and intelligent build-up play orchestrated by Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta who know just when to bring him into the equation. They know when to play off him or when to drop a ball over the top of the defense for him and they have the quality to do it.
Alejandro Sabella took over the national team in 2011 and immediately deduced that Messi couldn’t emulate his style of play with Barcelona as Argentina do not have the same class of playmakers they boast and cannot replicate their tiki-taka brand of football.
However, he recognized the strengths the South Americans possess and used them to devise a system that not only gets the best out of the attacking players, but also affords Messi a role in which he can flourish.
Sabella has ingeniously ensured that Messi retains his false nine position even though Argentina’s tactics are in stark contrast to Barcelona’s. While the Catalans thrive on possession, the Argentines appear ponderous on the ball and are most threatening on the counter-attack. Nevertheless, Messi is now a key figure in both systems.
For his country, he plays in a front three, sandwiched between the supreme striking talents of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain with Ezequiel Lavezzi providing a useful alternative. He is effectively allowed a free role to drop deep and get on the ball, make forward runs or even drift into a wide area. He goes looking for pockets of space and then exploits them. This has worked exceptionally as Messi scored 10 times in 14 World Cup qualifiers.
Meanwhile, Angel Di Maria acts as a fourth forward when he advances from midfield, adding even more pace and penetration to the frontline. The system plays to the strengths of their stars and may be enough to make up for their vulnerability in defense. For the first time in a while, Argentina look like a balanced, cohesive unit and are going into this tournament in good form.
There are a couple of other factors that could work in Argentina’s favour. For one, the World Cup couldn’t be closer to home and so they may have the edge over other European teams when it comes to dealing with the conditions. Granted, most of their players ply their trade in Europe but they wouldn’t have taken long to get reacclimatized.
Also, many of their fans will have made the short trip to support them and with all the pressure that’s been heaped on Brazil to be champions, Argentina could well be spared the hype and scrutiny, leaving them to fly under the radar to a certain extent.
Let’s not forget that they also drew a relatively comfortable group with Nigeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran to contend with. If they emerge as group winners, they’re likely to face Switzerland, Honduras or Ecuador from Group E, paving an inviting path towards the quarter-finals.
Turning our attention back to Messi in particular though, his two month injury lay-off last season may have been a blessing in disguise as far as his ambition to win the World Cup goes. While he did make 46 appearances, many of those were from the bench and with Neymar on hand to deputize for him, he was eased back into proceedings.
As a result, Messi has been spared from ‘burn out’ that so many stars struggle with at the end of long seasons. Cristiano Ronaldo for example, had a phenomenal campaign with Real Madrid but suffered injuries towards the end which is why he has only played in one warm up game for Portugal. The physical strain on Franck Ribery translated into a back problem and ruled him out of the World Cup entirely.
Meanwhile, Luis Suarez has just begun training again after his own injury concerns. Messi on the other hand is fresh and raring to go. After a disappointing season with Barcelona, he’ll be hungry for success in Brazil and could well produce his best.
At 26, Messi is in his prime and won’t be better placed to taste glory with the national side again. When the next World Cup comes around, he’ll be 30 and possibly entering the twilight of his career. So while this isn’t necessarily his last chance, it’s certainly his best.The stage is set for Argentina’s star man to dazzle at the World Cup. If you thought it would be sweet to see the host nation lift the trophy, the sight of Messi leading his side to the ultimate prize in football and putting his greatness beyond doubt, in rival territory no less, has its own appeal to it.
|Can Messi lead Argentina to victory? Leave your comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.|
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