The 27-year-old has been decisive in every game so far and there must now be genuine belief that he can lead his country to ultimate triumph in Brazil and emulate Diego Maradona
By Teo Teng Kiat | Deputy Editor, Goal Singapore
Before facing Switzerland for a place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, Argentina talisman Lionel Messi claimed that his team did not rely "heavily" on him.
"We are a quality team, so I am only a part of this," he told the Times of India. "We only can win as a team."
One wonders whether Messi genuinely believed that, for all the evidence has been to the contrary so far. The 27-year-old captained La Albiceleste through three wins in Group F, scoring in every game, and he was at it once again when it came to the crunch against the Swiss.
With the game at 0-0 and two minutes away from penalties, the pint-sized genius embarked on a run that sliced right through their centre like a knife through Swiss cheese. A perfect lay-off to the right for Angel di Maria was the end product, the net bulging a split second later as the winger sidefooted the ball into the far corner.
Fantastically well-organised, Ottmar Hitzfeld's team worked overtime in defence to clamp down on Argentina and denied them time and space in midfield. It almost worked - until Messi intervened. One will feel sorry for Switzerland, but at the same time, has to admire what Messi has done so far.
Named permanent skipper when Sabella took over in August 2011, he went on to bag 10 goals out of the side's 35 as Argentina topped their World Cup qualifying, with only Luis Suarez scoring more (11). Messi's golscoring ratio has improved dramatically at international level - he has now scored 23 goals in his last 23 caps from 2012 to the present, having only struck 19 in 67 before that.
Messi has carried that form into Brazil with crucial interventions in every match. His free-kick led to the opening goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina and a brilliant curler proved to be the winner later on. Having taken eight years to double his World Cup tally, Messi ended Iran's resilience in the second game with a glorious long-range strike. Two more followed in the final match against Nigeria, including a jaw-dropping free-kick.
Sabella has evidently built his tactics around Messi and while that is risky in many ways, it also makes sense with the attacker's form. Messi himself may be driven by the desire to prove everyone wrong after a poor season - by his own standards - that was blighted by injury and much criticism, as Barcelona failed to win a trophy. At 27, he is supposedly entering the peak years of his career as well, which would be a mind-boggling thought given some of his impossible statistics in recent years.
He has also admitted that fatherhood has changed things and helped him mature a great deal. It doesn't really matter why Messi has been in such imperious form though - Argentina will only care that he keeps going. Where Cristiano Ronaldo has flopped for Portugal and Neymar has at times struggled for Brazil, Messi has been the constant leading light for his country.
The simple suggestion to stop Argentina is to shackle Messi, but that is easier said than done - as has been proved so far. There is also the niggling feeling that more is in store from Messi and his team, majority of whom have been lacklustre.
With how things have been shaping up, it might just be in Messi's destiny to emulate Diego Maradona and cement his legacy with a World Cup. Don't count against it happening.