By Shikharr Chandra
For how much longer can Lionel Messi haul this star-studded Argentina line-up over the finishing line? The South Americans have been bailed out by Messi's individual magic in all three of their group F victories. With the long range strike against Bosnia-Herzegovina, the curling far post shot against Iran or a mesmerizing free-kick against Nigeria, the grandeur behind Messi's strikes seems to increase tenfold and by the looks of it, there's no stopping him.
Messi's career has been the subject of much debate for a prolonged period of time. Many consider him to be the greatest player ever, while others seem to reserve that opinion until he does something fruitful in the biggest stage of football - The World Cup. Messi, extensively, has remained in the shadows of Diego Maradona, one of football’s greatest ever entertainers. He did it for his country, his club.
But despite doing everything at the club level, the World Cup, for long now, has remained a distant dream for Messi.
When Alejandro Sabella's men started the campaign with a defensive minded approach, modulating a 5-3-2 formation against Bosnia, many expressed surprise given the attacking taalent at his disposal. Though Argentina ran out winners thanks to Messi, La Pulga Atomica was hardly impressed with what he saw.
There were rumours of a growing rift between the coach and the player, as Messi demanded a change of formation, to one that would suit him best. A 4-3-3 formation was deployed and once again Messi came to the rescue, while others watched on. A change in formation allows 'more freedom' to the strikers elucidated Messi, and by the looks of it only he seems to be thriving from that change.
This hasn't been Messi's season. He lost the Ballon D'Or crown to Cristiano Ronaldo, ended the campaign with Barcelona empty handed, suffered an injury and for once had to deal with widespread criticism.
But his plundering in the World Cup though, comes at an opportune time to stamp his authority on the definitive global platform and finally cement his status as the greatest player.
Though Messi has been blessed with a great team, with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano plying their trade at some of the most renowned clubs in European football, neither of them have been able to lend a helping hand to Messi so far.
While Di Maria seemed to have found his feet in the final group game against Nigeria, Aguero and Higuain once again disappointed. Aguero's injury now leaves Messi with an even greater pressure to perform. Both the strikers were injured in the build-up to the World Cup and have so far found it hard to get back their rhythm. Aguero has mustered a single shot on goal so far in the World Cup, whereas Higuain is yet to open his shots tally account.
There hasn’t been anything great about Argentina so far in this World Cup barring Messi. They were handed arguably the easiest group of all the major contenders and qualification does not come as a surprise. What was surprising to note though was despite winning all the three games the margin of victory was just one goal.
Argentina's defense remains their major weakness, something that was exposed by Ahmed Musa. His runs behind the defense often found the defenders napping and while his first goal was an outstanding finish, his second completely opened up the Argentinian back-line from the middle.
There are obvious flaws in the La Albicelestes and if Messi and company want to see their dream fulfilled, they need to up their game as there will be little room for errors in the knockout rounds, where they face Switzerland.
The thing about Messi though is that even he hasn't been performing to his stupendous levels. Against Bosnia he was almost anonymous for the majority of the game and even against Iran, despite testing the goalkeeper on occasions he never really looked threatening. It was only against Nigeria that he showed his true class.
Messi now has four goals in the tournament and is among the two players to have scored in all the group games so far alongside James Rodriguez. But if he needs to match up to Maradona, he needs to continue performing well in the knockout stages with some considerable help from his team-mates.
With Spain, Italy, England and Portugal already out, this might be Messi's best chance to win the World Cup for his country. He is not loved by the Argentinians in the same way as Maradona is or, for that matter, even Carlos Tevez.
The La Albiceleste never really considered him as one of their own, but the standing ovation he received from the thousands in the stands seems to be an indication that they are softening up on him and that Messi is finally winning their hearts. However while Messi has been decisive for them so far, to expect him alone to fire them to glory is unrealistic especially when they face tougher tests. It's time for the rest of the pack to step up.