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Messi stressed & unhappy at World Cup, says Zabaleta

10:32 EAT 26/06/2018
Lionel Messi Argentina Croatia World Cup 2018
The right-back sympathises with his friend, who has flattered to deceive at the 2018 tournament, with Argentina on the verge of elimination

Lionel Messi is "unhappy" at the World Cup, with the pressure of Argentina's hopes at the tournament weighing on his shoulders, according to his former team-mate Pablo Zabaleta.

Messi has struggled in Russia thus far, missing a penalty in his side's 1-1 draw with Iceland, before struggling in the stunning 3-0 defeat to Croatia.

Argentina's qualifying hopes are subsequently on a knife edge, with Jorge Sampaoli's men facing a do-or-die clash with Nigeria on Tuesday.

And Zabaleta, who won 58 caps for Argentina, believes too much is expected of the Barcelona superstar.

"The happiest I saw Lionel Messi when I played alongside him for Argentina was in 2012 - he scored a hat-trick against Brazil in New York, and he played the whole game with freedom and a smile on his face," he wrote in his BBC Sport column.

"His body language was completely the opposite before the Croatia game on Thursday. To see Leo looking so stressed and unhappy at this World Cup was a real worry.

"He is my friend as well as my former team-mate and I felt really sorry for him. It is very unusual to see him like that, but it was a sign of what was going on in his head.

"At times like this, there is a huge pressure on him because people expect too much, and for him to do everything for the national team.

"I was not surprised he struggled, in what was a disastrous defeat for us. As a player myself, I know that if you go into a game and you don't really enjoy it then it is very difficult to play well."

Argentina's game against Nigeria has an extra importance due to the fact that it may be Messi's last ever game at a World Cup.

Messi is 31, and has yet to taste World Cup glory - he has only won an Olympic Gold Medal for his country, back in 2008 - with Zabaleta believing that baggage from previous failures weighs heavy.

"I think it is getting harder for Leo to play for Argentina. He turned 31 on Sunday so he is getting older and sometimes, mentally, you can feel tired as well," he added.

"Part of that is down to his history with Argentina. This team has lost the past three finals they have played - the 2014 World Cup and the Copa America in 2015 and 2016.

"In Argentina, that is not enough. For some people, and for parts of the media, you have to win - just reaching the final is not acceptable.

"So losing three finals in four years has been tough mentally and psychologically for everyone in that team, especially Leo.

"It is hard when people in your country treat you like a loser. They see him winning trophies every season with Barcelona - so they expect him to do exactly the same in the national team."