Sunday 22 September 2019

Messi's career at crossroads for both club and country

A distraught Lionel Messi all alone with his thoughts after Argentina’s 0-0 draw with Peru in Buenos Aires. Photo: Getty Images
A distraught Lionel Messi all alone with his thoughts after Argentina’s 0-0 draw with Peru in Buenos Aires. Photo: Getty Images

Jason Burt

These are extraordinary times for Lionel Messi and it would be fascinating to know quite what is going through his head. It is entirely conceivable that Argentina will fail to qualify for next summer's World Cup in Russia, which could feasibly lead to Messi again announcing his retirement from international football - and finally this time, after he did so last year only to be coaxed back.

At the same time, Messi has still not signed his new deal at Barcelona and, while the expectation is that he will remain in Spain, the fact is that, as things stand, in less than three months' time he is entitled to talk to foreign clubs and agree a pre-contract to play for them from next season.

That the countdown is on to potentially see the greatest footballer in the world leaving for free is astonishing in itself and it is understood that Manchester City have placed themselves firmly at the head of that queue.

City are not confident that Messi will leave but they are confident that if he does, and if he goes to England, then he will move to them.

Much is made of the Catalan axis at the heart of City but they, especially Pep Guardiola, would create the environment he wants.

The wrench of leaving Barcelona, though, makes him unlikely to quit, especially given the club's renewed dependence on Messi since Neymar's shock departure. But it has been discussed and until he signs that new contract the doubt will only grow.

Last November, Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu was adamant Messi was going nowhere, while, last July, Bartomeu said: "The contract was signed at the end of June." That clearly did not happen, although Bartomeu later attempted to clarify his statement by saying an agreement had been reached. But signed, as yet, it is not.

The situation with Argentina is far more pressing. The squad arrived in Ecuador on Sunday and, in the early hours of tomorrow, will play their final qualifier knowing that there is a real danger of missing out.

They are sixth in the South American standings, level on points with Peru, who occupy fifth place and are in line for a play-off against New Zealand.

Peru are up against fourth-placed Colombia, who are only a point ahead, so there is still a chance for Argentina, but they have not won in Ecuador since 2001 and the match is being played almost two miles above sea level at the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa in Quito. The victory 16 years ago was the only one Argentina have recorded in Ecuador in 10 attempts, stretching back 57 years.

The reasons for Argentina's predicament are many - from the chaos at their football association, to the chopping and changing of coaches and players, to injuries and suspension, the difficulty of qualifying to plain old bad luck, such as in the goalless draw at home against Peru last week when Messi struck a post and his team-mates spurned a host of chances he created. The players, aside from Messi, appeared to freeze.

it is highly likely that if they do not make it, the 30-year-old will not play in another World Cup.

He may, then, be about to play his final game for Argentina, who have lost the last two Copa America finals and the 2014 World Cup decider in Brazil. It was after the second of those two Copa defeats, which hit Messi the hardest, as he missed the decisive spot-kick in the shoot-out against Chile, that he announced he could give no more. "I tried so hard to be a champion with Argentina," he said. "But it didn't happen. I couldn't do it. I think it's best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. The choice for me is over. It is a decision."

It felt like an emotional reaction and, ultimately, it proved to be, with Messi persuaded to return a few months later. But now they are facing the ignominy of not even being at next summer's tournament.

That would be dramatic enough, as would Messi then deciding to stop playing for his country. But it would not be the only big decision he faces in the coming weeks.

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