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Messi struggles while Argentina click: Have the Albiceleste finally broken their Leo-dependency?

12:00 IST 01/07/2019
Messi Argentina Venezuela
Having laboured under the burden of being the Albiceleste messiah for almost a decade, the Barcelona star can now focus on just being Messi

For a man so accustomed to taking centre-stage when he walks out onto the football pitch, Lionel Messi could be forgiven for feeling rather disconcerted as Argentina's Copa America journey winds on.

The Barcelona star has played only a peripheral role in his nation's tentative run to the semi-finals in Brazil. With a single goal, no assists and a series of performances that have been sub-par by his immensely elevated standards, he has failed to transfer the imperious form shown for Barcelona in 2018-19 over to the international arena.

Such a dip would usually spell disaster for Argentina, who for years have suffered a near-crippling dependency on their captain and superstar, the infamous Messi-dependencia which has proved such a burden for the player. But not this time.

Against all expectations, and after a catastrophic start to the competition, the Albiceleste now have the chance to go all the way – and the biggest surprise is that their marked improvement as a team has come almost independently of Leo.

Messi, of course, had been convinced and cajoled into rejoining the Argentina set-up as late as March, one of the few players in the team with real international experience as rookie coach Lionel Scaloni oversaw the renewal of the tired squad that flopped in the World Cup.

The Barca No. 10, Sergio Aguero, Nicolas Otamendi and Angel Di Maria contribute no less than 394 caps to the Albiceleste cause, almost double the number held by the other 19 players in the squad. All four started Argentina's Copa opener against Colombia – and were promptly humbled in a 2-0 defeat that caused alarm bells to be sounded across the camp.

If the Albiceleste have improved since then, it is largely thanks to their new crop of talent, who, with their enthusiasm and ability, have breathed new life into the team. Leandro Paredes is busy demonstrating what was missing for all those years Javier Mascherano marshalled and bullied the middle of the pitch, a holding midfielder with real vision and range of passing.

Time and again in Friday's 2-0 victory over Venezuela, the Paris Saint-Germain man opened up the game and put Argentina's rivals on the defensive, ably aided by roving Udinese midfielder Rodrigo De Paul, who has arguably been his nation's best player these last two games.

Further back, Juan Foyth was unstoppable at right-back, while Lautaro Martinez continued to lead the way with his limitless energy and lethal finishing to net his second goal of the Copa.

Paredes and De Paul are 25; Foyth and Martinez, just 21. They did not grow up in Messi's shadow as part of the previous generation; rather, they are keen to find their own path in the Albiceleste, in their own team.

Of course, if the brilliant No.10 shakes off the slump that has afflicted him so far in Brazil, all the better.

“In truth, I am not having my best Copa America,” the captain confessed after the Venezuela game. It is difficult to disagree.

For once, Messi's problem in international colours has not been the lack of quality possession or opportunities, but his inability to take advantage of them. His usually incisive passes veer a metre or two off-target, his dribbles peter out into nothing, shots he could convert in his sleep spoon harmlessly over the crossbar.

Thanks to Argentina clicking elsewhere, though, Leo's personal travails are just that, personal. Against Qatar and Venezuela, they had no overall impact on the team, with Paredes and De Paul forming the new axis from which the Albiceleste advanced and Lautaro and Aguero moving constantly to provide options in the penalty area. Even with their talisman struggling for form, they are looking better than at any point since the last Copa in 2016.

All that may yet not be enough to ensure a third straight final. Hosts Brazil are stronger across the pitch, both on an individual and collective level, keeping four clean sheets on their way to the semis. It will be an immense challenge for a side that is only now beginning to come together and will start as clear underdogs in Belo Horizonte.

Can they cause an upset? They will need a near-perfect display, especially from a backline that still looks rather frail. 

However, the example of 2007, the two nations' last meeting in a major finals, may ironically give Argentina some cheer. There the tables were turned, with a workmanlike Selecao squeezing through to the Copa final to meet a stellar side composed of Javier Zanetti, Roberto Ayala, Seba Veron, Messi, Carlos Tevez, Juan Roman Riquelme and a host of other great talents.

Alfio Basile's men were nevertheless sent packing in a 3-0 rout, the dogged determination of the likes of Gilberto, Maicon, Alex and Elano proving too much for the Albiceleste's aristocrats.

That Copa also perhaps marked the last time Messi was one amongst a team of equals, as his country year by year fell deeper into the trap of dependency that reached its lowest ebb during last year's World Cup debacle.

At the very least, should Argentina go down to their star-studded rivals it will be as a team, not a collection of individuals held together by the centrifugal force of the little wizard from Rosario.

Not to say, of course, that a match-winning display would not be welcome. “Messi is Messi,” Scaloni underlined when asked why his captain was not hitting his usual heights. “Messi gives an essential contribution on the pitch and also in the dressing room.”

Brazil's Thiago Silva is also wary: “He is the best player in the world and he could still wake up. We have to take special care.

“Sometimes he walks during the game, but he is always looking for spaces for the counter-attack.”

Messi is still Messi, but he may no longer have to be Argentina's Messiah. Instead of Messi + 10, perhaps now is the time to look at the Albiceleste as 11, with Leo part of a working unit and free to concentrate on what he knows and does best.

Such a formula may not guarantee victory against Brazil, nor that long-awaited Copa trophy five days later; but it would be a wholly positive development looking forward to Qatar 2022 and beyond.