For anyone who paid the slightest bit of attention to Argentina throughout the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying cycle, Spain’s resounding 6-1 defeat of La Albiceleste comes as no surprise. Without Messi, Argentina has zero business being at this World Cup. The statistics, again, bear repeating:
Without Messi, Argentina played eight matches in qualifying. They won one. They scored 0.75 goals per game. They lost to Ecuador, Paraguay and Bolivia. They drew with Venezuela. Tata Martino was sacked and so was his successor, Edgardo Bauza.
With Messi, Argentina played ten matches and only lost one (to Brazil in Belo Horizonte). They beat Chile twice, Uruguay and trounced Colombia 3-0 in San Juan. In 10 games, Messi scored seven goals (including the all-important hat-trick against Ecuador to secure Argentina’s World Cup place). How important were Messi’s goals? For comparison’s sake, Argentina’s strike force of Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Mauro Icardi, Dario Benedetto, Lucas Pratto and Lucas Alario combined for three goals over the two-year cycle.
If I’m posting on r/unpopularopinion, the title of my shit post is “Messi lifting this flaming dumpster of a team to the World Cup is infinitely more impressive than Diego Maradona actually lifting the trophy.”
Without Messi, this team isn’t poor, it’s unwatchable, and I’m not the only one that thinks that. Here’s Messi after Spain scored number six last night.
Lionel Messi couldn't face it any longer. pic.twitter.com/Nb7FnmSu3J— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 28, 2018
While it’s the inability of the big name strikers to replicate their club form for country that constantly captures the headlines, Messi’s ability to dictate the tempo and rhythm of Argentina’s attack is also hugely understated with regards to the nation’s midfield play.
For manager Jorge Sampaoli, the side’s setup remains something of a catch-22. How do you ensure that you get the absolute most out of Messi (Argentina’s only hope) while also ensuring that you don’t become over-reliant on Messi? It’s a paradox that always flounders in the reality of a poor midfield.
Whatever the combination of Lucas Biglia/Ever Banega/Enzo Perez/Javier Mascherano/Guido Pizarro, Argentina cannot go toe-to-toe with (for a most recent example) Spain’s deployment of Thiago Alcantara, Andres Iniesta and Koke — a worrying fact that’ll come to the fore when they face Croatia’s superior midfield on June 21.
“We have to take charge of this game, these things cannot happen to us at the World Cup,” said Sampaoli after the match. “Spain have slapped us, we have to keep working. … Leo trained with us but still had discomfort in his leg. He felt that fatigue and that is why he didn’t play. Obviously we felt his absence above everyone else’s.
“But Leo stayed with us, he was encouraging the players. He is committed to the World Cup. He spoke at halftime to the team.”
After the match, Spanish striker Diego Costa spoke to that effect — that this is a poor side without Messi, but one that must still be considered among the favorites in Russia with him.
“In Argentina they criticize Messi a lot and now they see what happened,” Costa said. “You have to look after him. When Messi isn’t on the pitch, Argentina are something else. It changed a lot for us to play against a team without him.
“The Argentine people shouldn’t be fooled by this result. They’re candidates to win the World Cup.”
A triumph in Russia wouldn’t just be the crowning moment of Messi’s career, it would be the most remarkable individual achievement in the history of international football.