Friday 20 July 2018

Now or never for Messi

Last shot at world domination looms for Argentina superstar

Lionel Messi must elevate his game even further if he is to emulate Diego Maradona and deliver a World Cup for Argentina. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
Lionel Messi must elevate his game even further if he is to emulate Diego Maradona and deliver a World Cup for Argentina. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

James Ducker

It was not uncommon on Fridays at Barcelona for the players who had come through the club's famed youth academy to have a game against those who had been signed from other teams, often at great expense.

The recruits were, to say the least, no slouches - David Villa, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves. You get the picture.

And yet, without exception, the story would be the same with Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and company administering the sort of batterings an U-12s team might habitually inflict on opponents five years their junior.

Messi would, invariably, leave team-mates open-jawed and the Argentinian conductor was all the more devastating for being surrounded by the perfect orchestra, players he had grown up with at La Masia from the age of 13 and with whom he had a telepathic understanding.

The intoxicating blend around him helped to give maximum expression to his own mesmerising gifts.

Glory

The story is worth telling because, with the World Cup finals looming into view, Messi will, in effect, be among the team of recruits when he attempts to inspire Argentina to glory at the fourth time of asking.

He will still, of course, be surrounded by some very good players, but if he is to succeed in Russia where he fell short in Germany, South Africa and Brazil, he will have to elevate his game and those of his Argentina team-mates without the sort of long, carefully nurtured support cast Barcelona's side of locally sourced talents came to symbiotically provide for his outrageous ability.

It was no surprise that Spain's international dominance between 2008 and 2012, during which they won the World Cup and two European Championships, coincided with Barcelona's own monopoly of the club game since the same group of players provided the foundations for both sides.

There is seldom a substitute for real synergy in a team, but that is what Messi will be asked to trump as he bids to put Argentina on top of the pile for the first time since his compatriot and the player with whom he is most likened, Diego Maradona, managed to transform a good Argentina team into a great one at Mexico '86.

Spain are Argentina's opponents in a friendly in Madrid tomorrow, and watching Jorge Sampaoli's side minus a "muscle fatigued" Messi mostly labour before a late flourish to win 2-0 against a very modest Italy in Manchester on Friday only re-affirmed the direct correlation between the Barcelona maestro and the hopes of the Albiceleste this summer.

In fairness, Sampaoli is making no attempt to downplay that reality. Even in a team with such attacking riches as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria - Juventus's Paulo Dybala and Inter's Mauro Icardi are, incredibly, not certain to make the cut - Sampaoli was talking last Thursday about Messi "carrying this team on his shoulders".

The Argentina coach knows there are better, more complete sides than his in Russia, from pre-tournament favourites Germany and Brazil to France, Spain and even Belgium, but no one else has a player as singularly capable of winning a game so often as Messi.

If his talent can win out - as it did in that final qualifying match against Ecuador when a hat-trick catapulted Argentina to victory and averted the ignominy of the country missing out on the tournament for the first time since 1970 - it would rank as an achievement every bit as great as Maradona's personal tour de force 32 years ago.

Messi will turn 31 three weeks before Argentina kick off their World Cup campaign against Iceland in Moscow. He will be well on the road to 36 by the time the subsequent tournament in Qatar comes around in November 2022.

It would be foolhardy to think that, barring the ravages of injury, he would no longer be a force by then, but there is little doubt that this summer is likely to represent his last shot at world domination when his star is at the peak of its transcendency.

Playing for Argentina may equate to life with Barcelona's recruits, so to speak, but one suspects those Friday games in Catalonia would not have been so one-sided had Messi swapped sides. (© Daily Telegraph, London.)

Telegraph.co.uk

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