Messi's return fails to paper over the cracks as Argentina suffer familiar woes

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BENJAMIN CREMEL
The Albiceleste were outplayed in a 3-1 defeat to Venezuela that raises serious doubts just months before the Copa America kicks off

The long, uncertain wait was over. Just shy of nine months since his last Argentina outing Lionel Messi returned to the international fold in Madrid's Wanda Metropolitano, the Albiceleste legend backed by an entire nation who had begged and pleaded for their prodigal son to end his self-imposed exile.

It then took less than six minutes for the captain to see just how daunting a challenge lies ahead for his national team, and perhaps in the darkest corners of his mind even begin to regret his decision.

Just three players other than Messi, goalkeeper Franco Armani and defensive pair Nicolas Tagliafico and Gabriel Mercado, survived the cull that followed World Cup defeat to France on June 30, 2018, and lined up against Venezuela. That quartet was complemented by a selection of the players coach Lionel Scaloni believes are the key to renewing this national team: Atlanta United's Pity Martinez the oldest at 25, all of the seven boasting 10 caps or fewer.

Mercado was joined in a three-man central defence by debutant Lisandro Martinez and Tottenham's Juan Foyth, a set-up that almost immediately fell to pieces. Newcastle United poacher Salomon Rondon smashed past Armani in the first meaningful attack of the match, after connecting with a long ball that caught Mercado badly off-guard and chasing the striker's shadow.

Even with their talisman on the pitch Argentina looked well under par. Martinez was deputising for the injured Angel Di Maria on the left side of attack and immediately began to send over the same endless, aimless crosses typical of the Paris Saint-Germain man's volatile Albiceleste career, while the harried midfield duo of Leandro Paredes and Giovani Lo Celso were pinned back by the Venezuela counter threat and ineffective in possession.

In a rehash of the same tired story it was Messi who was obliged to drop deep and create something out of nothing. On two occasions in the first half he broke loose, skipping past his markers with his unique close dribbling and firing perfect crosses to Lautaro Martinez, leading the line on his own. Lautaro made fine contact on both, forcing an equally impressive save out of Wuilker Farinez with his first before heading the second narrowly over.

And that was about as good as it got in the first half. Darwin Machis had exposed Argentina's frailties by forcing a one-on-one save out of Armani, but there was nothing River's keeper could do just before the break when Jhon Murillo let loose with a curling effort after yet more shambolic defending.

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The five-man defence and the ineffectual Pity were thankfully ditched in a decision that paid dividends when Lautaro converted a slick Argentina counter with class to cut the deficit. The architect of the move, need we add, was the captain. But it proved to be a false dawn.

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Lautaro, perhaps the only man alongside Messi to prove he deserves a place in this team, was withdrawn, and yet another Martinez, Atlanta's Josef, sealed Venezuela's win by converting a penalty and putting the Vinotinto 3-1 ahead. 

Prior to kick-off on Friday Argentina's media department produced a lavish video comparing Messi to 10 national heroes, from writer Jose Luis Borges to Formula One legend Juan Manuel Fangio. What the captain really needs, though, is 10 team-mates capable of forming a fluid, effective unit and harnessing his otherworldly talents. 

From what we saw at the Wanda Metropolitano that is a long way off. Across the pitch and especially in defence the Albiceleste were disorganised, clueless, shambolic at times. Not even Messi's presence can paper over the cracks of a team in chronic state and, more worrying still, unsure of what to do just three months before the start of the Copa America.

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