To aspire to play like Barcelona, or not. That, in a Lionel Messi-sized nutshell, is the question facing Argentina as they plot Colombia’s downfall at the Copa America on Wednesday.
Messi is the great conundrum for a host nation chasing a first major honour since the 1993 Copa, won in Ecuador. The Albiceleste, stung by criticism of their opening 1-1 draw with Bolivia, have won a joint record 14 titles along with Uruguay. Home advantage, which had brought six Copas and also helped to propel Argentina to their maiden World Cup in 1978, should be like a 12th man.
The trouble is, where does their 10th man fit into the equation?
There are certain levels of footballing sacrilege in Argentina and slinging mud at el diez, the No. 10, ought to be well up the list. A shirt worn by Diego Maradona is a sizeable garment to fill, and Brazilian successors to Pele will empathize entirely.
Lone fight: Lionel Messi (right) during Argentina’s match on Friday. Photograph by Ricardo Mazalan/AP
The unassuming Messi may not have the tousled curls of his predecessor, but he can point to his successes with Barcelona and his world player of the year status. Yet the question is asked ever louder: Why can’t Argentina win with the game’s No. 1 talent on board?
Sometimes, he is a victim of circumstances.
Five years ago, coach Jose Pekerman left him on the bench as Argentina exited the World Cup to Germany, when one moment of brilliance would have sufficed. But then, in the 2007 Copa final, he was marked out of the game as Brazil cantered to a 3-0 victory in Venezuela. At last year’s World Cup, he was powerless to prevent a quarter-final thrashing by Germany.
This time, fans wonder if his presence is a potential solution—or part of the problem. Opinions are divided.
“I don’t think the national team should play for Messi,” midfield hope Javier Pastore told the Olé newspaper in an interview published on Tuesday. “We have to make use of the speed of others. It’s not all about Messi. Yes, he is a plus for us as he is the best in the world—but we have to function well as a unit.”
Striker Sergio Aguero, who rescued a point with a fine volley against Bolivia, also has a view. “People expect Leo to win matches on his own but there are 11 of us on the pitch,” says Aguero. He suggests Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona had a point when he said after the first game that “Messi always plays well, never badly—which is what the others around him were doing.”
“As the ball did not get through to Messi, he had to drop back to pick it up,” Grondona complained.
Aguero conceded that Messi “played well in the first game but he didn’t succeed as we didn’t turn in a good showing in general”.
Dropping Messi would be a radical step, yet coach Sergio Batista has to weigh whether he and Carlos Tevez are the attacking dream ticket. The latter is a fan favourite and wears his heart on his sleeve, whereas the modest-to-a-fault Messi is regarded by some as barely Argentinian after moving to Catalonia as a young teenager. To drop Tevez would be as sacrilegious in the eyes of many fans as to leave out Messi.
For now, Batista is adamant the pair can unlock the door with Ezequiel Lavezzi and Ever Banega providing additional thrust, adopting Andres Iniesta or Xavi Hernandez-like roles to allow Messi to weave his tricks higher up the field as he does at the Camp Nou.
“The idea is for Lionel to link with Banega, (Esteban) Cambiasso and Tevez, and find a way through with Lavezzi,” says Batista.
After Bolivia, Batista is aware that Colombia, who have three points in the bag after beating Costa Rica, “are slower but technically more gifted”. In a 4-1-4-1 system with Radamel Falcao a lone spearhead, they can afford to let Argentina run at them.
What Argentina cannot afford is for Messi and company not to get through, as was the case against Bolivia.
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