What a mess whither Messi? Russia World Cup 2018

Argentina's collapse leaves its star looking burnt out

Lionel Messi scored a fantastic goal last night.

The great midfielder, who normally plays for one of Spain's big two, teased a defender on the edge of the box before unleashing a swerving missile inside the near post.

As the watching world acclaimed one of the most exquisite goals of the World Cup, they pinched themselves and realised it was Croatia's Luka Modric who had found the net instead.

What a mess, whither Messi?

For all the wails and lamentations over Argentina's shadow side which has stumbled and fallen in Russia, we are all a bit guilty of underestimating their opposition too.

Iceland are no mugs as England found out to their cost at Euro 2016 and Croatia have form too: World Cup semi-finalists in 1998, Euro quarter finalists in 1996 and 2008.

If Croatia had an Alen Boksic or Davor Suker up front to help Mario Mandzukic, a Slaven Bilic in defence and a Robert Prosinecki in attacking midfield, well...

Mind you, if Messi had had some quality suppliers too...

France '98 calls out to Argentina, a tournament they could have won had it not been for a moment of genius from Dennis Bergkamp. As with their talented 1994 side derailed by Diego Maradona's positive drugs test, if only...

Imagine if twenty years later they could call upon the following arsenal: Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo, Marcelo Gallardo, Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastian Veron and Javier Zanetti.

1998 also resonates with Croatia. Their win last night in Nizhny Novgorod felt uncannily like their 3-0 demolition of an ageing Germany in Lyon that year, putting an overrated legend out of its misery with fresher legs and better teamwork.

Like a German team which fielded veterans like 33 year-old Jurgen Klinsmann and 37 year-old Lothar Matthaus, Argentina knew they would encounter a painful truth sooner or later: Messi will never win a World Cup, unless at 34 in Qatar he finds himself surrounded by a much better team.

He has retired from the national team before of course, only to return for more lost finals. Will he want to put himself through yet more suffering with his country when at club level he can live in the land of milk and honey?

All talk of whether this makes him an all-time great is daft of course. We all know he is one of the greatest. Many greats never won the World Cup: George Best, Alfredo Di Stefano, Eusebio, Johann Cruyff, Michel Platini, Ferenc Puskas, Marco Van Basten, Zico, oh and Cristiano Ronaldo, so far.

Yet the shadow of Diego Maradona hauling a functional yet uninspiring side to the World Cup in 1986 will always hang over him because they come from the same country.

Yet they were different types of midfielder, a fact which should close the debate down. Messi-Ronaldo comparisons are equally futile.

While he trots around the opposition half for Barcelona about to explode in a burst of dribbling, chips over the back four, quick flicks or curling shots, for his country he trots around before deflating as the ball does not arrive or his colleagues do not move into areas he can pass to them.

Messi has had twelve shots but no goals so far in Russia. Last night he had less than 50 touches and only a half a dozen in the last quarter of the game. It is as if his brain works differently when he is not sporting the blaugrana.

The lack of cohesion in La Albiceleste last night was stark when they conceded a shambolic third, jogging at best back towards their goal as Croatia broke and appealing absurdly for offside as Ivan Rakitic drilled home.

As coach Jorge Sampaoli was chivalrous in accepting blame having cut the most nerve-racked figure in all the tournament for 90 minutes, pacing up and down the technical area not like a caged animal, but quivering like a man facing imminent execution on death row.

How much the failure is down to him or his personnel is something the media can chew over, but it will not alleviate much of the pain. Argentina used 45 players and three coaches during a turbulent qualifying campaign rescued only at the last minute by a Messi hat-trick.

Sampaoli had tried to impose the system which worked so well for Chile in the 2015 Copa America, telling the media he wanted to play 2-3-3-2 in Russia, but last night the effect was a disjointed mess which ended with effectively a 5-0-5 formation.

Did swapping Sergio Aguero for Gonzalo Higuain make any difference for instance? What was Pablo Dybala's role? Why were they not trying to feed Messi at every turn etc?

The evening turned for the worse when Willy Caballero mishit a pass he should have launched, almost certainly a legacy of Pep Guardiola's insistence that his custodians pass the ball out of defence.

Caballero means 'gentleman' or 'knight' in Spanish, an irony not lost on Buenos Aires daily Ole, which opined in melodramatic terms about the tragedy in Russia:

"The knights of anguish which pain the soul of so many Argentinians..." it wrote.

Argentina, one of the perennial greats of world soccer, were left looking as poor and humiliated last night as Brazil did after their 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the last World Cup.

Sadness pervades, not only because millions of neutrals want Messi to shine on the biggest stage, but because a feeling of normality has been disrupted with Argentina playing so badly.

There is still a chance La Albiceleste can progress but in reality they need to be put out of their misery before they suffer further humiliation in the knockout stages.

Messi will always be one of the best, but the lack of the best trophy will always hurt too.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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