World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi's brilliance likely to carry Argentina past Switzerland
Alejandro Sabella’s side has, as yet, failed to ignite the World Cup finals and like the Argentina side of 1986 are likely to be propelled forward by their mercurial No 10
Such is the influence of the indecently talented genius from Rosario that this looks like it could be Lionel
Messi’s, rather than Argentina’s, World Cup. Messi's brilliance could mask the mediocrities and often defensive ineptitude of an average side that is gradually improving, but not really producing great football.
I was speaking recently to a member of the Argentine staff at the 1986 World Cup – forever labelled the Maradona World Cup – who told me that if you watched the tournament you would see that Maradona had perhaps about 10 to 15 minutes throughout the whole tournament and that is what is remembered.
Everything else he said was based around a solid Argentina side and the fact that they conceded just five goals throughout the tournament – including two in the final.
While the world drooled at Messi’s stellar display against Nigeria, the sight of Musa ambling through the middle of the Argentine defence to hit his side’s equaliser, is more than worrying for a side that has already conceded the same amount of goals it had when it reached the final in 1986.
Individually the back four is not a bad team. Pablo Zabaleta you all know, Ezequiel Garay has just been sold to Zenit St Petersburg for £12 million and had other leading teams after him, Marcos Rojo, linked to Barcelona, has had a very good season at Sporting and Fede Fernández has played 18 times this season for Napoli, third this season in Serie A with the third best defence.
Their problem when they play for their national team is that they know that Argentina forwards do not defend and often their midfield find it an inferior activity. They know they will have to deal with three or four one v ones against the rival forwards and if they do not stop them, they will have to bear the cross. They are not comfortable players when they go on the pitch.
Argentina’s gradual improvement is due in no small part to player-power and in particular what occurred at half time in the opening match against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Alejandro Sabella’s decision to play a five-man defence, something he had experimented with in pre-tournament friendlies, went down badly with the players.
But while the younger, less assertive, Messi might have accepted the situation and carried on, the older, more assertive one, did not. This is Messi's time, his tournament, the one he’s been waiting for, and if it is going to be lost, it will be lost playing his way, not somebody else's. Messi and the other leaders of the changing room (Javier Mascherano, Zabaleta) got their way.
Fernando Gago was needed to give more shape to a midfield that looked slow and predictable and two attackers were required because it is when playing behind two front men that Messi is at his most lethal as more spaces are created. Gonzalo Higuaín also came on at half time.
In 2010 Maradona, the then Argentina manager asked Messi what system he wanted to play to, and Leo, although firstly reticent, told him precisely that, adding that he would also want a wing back tracking up the flanks. Maradona tried it for the next game and then dropped it, forcing Leo to drop deeper to start the moves, link up and finish ... with a resultant loss of energy and creativity for Messi, and all in all a shapeless team.
An older, wiser Messi now knows that, if the team does not open up the pitch and create spaces for him to use, the solution for him is to wait for his moment, because he knows he will always have at least one – like the set-piece against Nigeria, or in a run on goal against Iran to make the most of it.
Against Nigeria Argentina's distribution was quicker, there was more movement off the ball from the forwards, especially after the introduction of Ezequiel Lavezzi who is a winger used to work harder defensively than the three forwards, all No 9s, that were used against Iran. So by accident, the injury of Sergio Agüero, Argentina seem to have found a balance and a better way to find spaces. With more spaces, a more dynamic and active Messi. It is that simple, really.
The defensively minded Sabella whose tactics had brought him within minutes of winning the Fifa Club World Cup final with Estudiantes against Barcelona and also masterminded the clubs Copa Libertadores win in Cruzeiro’s backyard, has been forced into another plan. The die is cast, and Sabella who admits to having sleepless nights because he can’t stop thinking about the World Cup, knows there is no turning back now.
But his first instinct was correct, because, as Nigeria, and also Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina occasionally showed, this is more than a poor defence – this is a weak unbalanced team that does not know how to defend as an unit.
His idea was initially to protect his side, and then little by little become more adventurous. He can forget that notion, strap on his seat belt and along with the rest of us try to enjoy what will almost certainly end up being a roller coaster of a ride at both ends of the pitch.
June 24 saw Messi celebrate his 27th birthday, coincidentally at the same time as one of the cooks with the Argentine squad. Two cakes were provided and at Leo’s insistence the entire squad sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and presented them both with a cake. “First the chef”, Leo said.
He has now become a leader and with it has come a new maturity. Cards have taken the place of the constantly switched on PlayStation as a main form of relaxation and there’s now a mellowness that now accompanies the mercurial brilliance he displays on the pitch.
“We’re getting better,” he says, before adding perhaps with a look at the work without the ball, ”we can’t make mistakes, because, now, after just one game you can be out.”
“But we certainly want more.”