The captain kickstarted his country’s campaign against Mexico, but it was staggering to see so many of the Albiceleste’s Copa winners underwhelm. With one swing of his left foot, Lionel Messi announced Argentina’s belated arrival at the 2022 World Cup. And the noise that welcomed them back onto the game’s grandest stage was deafening. Ear plugs were rendered useless by an explosion of Argentine joy at the Lusail Iconic Stadium.
There was relief there too, though, and plenty of it. “A weight off our shoulders,” Messi admitted after their 2-0 win over Mexico on Saturday night. The days leading up to the game had been “very long”, the skipper said, with the players bitterly “angry” with themselves for having slipped to a shock 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their Group C opener.
Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez even admitted having spoken with a psychologist. “I suffered a lot,” he confessed. “They took two shots at me and I conceded both. I have 45 million Argentines behind me and I should have given more”. The onus was, of course, on Messi to give more. He had opened the scoring against Saudi Arabia, from the penalty spot, but he too had faded after a bright first half, meaning he was facing a humiliating first-round exit at his final World Cup. His goal, then, represented a release, for him and his team-mates. And the coaches too. Pablo Aimar was reduced to tears by Messi’s 64th-minute strike.
That’s how much it meant to them. And perfectly illustrated just how much pressure they’re all under. Messi, of course, carries most of the burden. And usually makes light of it.
As Angel Di Maria said, his assist for the equaliser wasn’t a particularly good pass. “I threw him a turd but he always finds solutions to everything,” the veteran winger enthused. “He scored a tremendous goal and I just don’t have words for him any more.
“I have had the chance to play with the best player in the world at club level, and for 14 years with the national team, and for me Leo is everything.”
Messi cannot do it all, though. Not at a World Cup. One man can’t carry an entire team. People like to perpetuate the myth that Maradona won the 1986 edition all on his own, but that does a gross disservice to the likes of Jorge Valdano, Jorge Burruchaga, and Jose Luis Brown – men who stepped up to the mark when their country needed them most.
If Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina are to have any hope of emulating that side, it is imperative that Messi’s supporting cast play their parts.
It is worrying, then, that so many of the protagonists from last year’s Copa America triumph have gone missing in Qatar.
The injury-enforced absence of Giovani Lo Celso was obviously a massive blow, and one that Scaloni could have done little about. However, he now has a major issue in midfield, given Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul, who started alongside Lo Celso in the 1-0 win over Brazil in Rio in July of last year, have both performed abysmally thus far.
Indeed, Paredes was dropped after his horror show against the Saudis, while De Paul failed dismally to justify his retention in the starting line-up against Mexico, giving the ball away 16 times in total.
Thus far, the midfield duo have looked exactly what they are: two men who have arrived in Qatar undercooked after little football at club level this season.
Cristian Romero is also seriously lacking minutes because of his injury issues, looking a shadow of the player who made such an impact at the Copa, and it was no surprise to see him quickly lose his starting spot to Lisandro Martinez.
Lautaro Martinez has no excuse, though, for his lack of match sharpness. The 25-year-old has led the Inter attack for the majority of the first half of the 2022-23 Serie A campaign, but the concern is that one of the streakiest strikers in world football is in one of his infamously fallow periods.
There is, therefore, a clamour for Julian Alvarez to start up front in the must-min match against Poland, even though he is only 22 and effectively Erling Haaland’s understudy at Manchester City.
Scaloni has no other centre-forward available to him if he does decide to bench Lautaro, so there will be a temptation to stick with a player who contributed three goals to their victorious Copa campaign.
But it would not be a surprise to see Argentina take to the field without five of the players who started against Brazil in Rio: Lo Celso (injured), Paredes, De Paul, Romero and Lautaro. That is a sign of just how much this previously rock-solid Argentina side has been destabilised over the past few days.
A team on a 36-game undefeated run now knows that a second loss in the space of a week would send them out of a tournament that many pundits tipped them to win.
Poland represent a formidable foe, too. Wojciech Szczesny is looking unbeatable in goal, Piotr Zielinski has brought his Napoli form with him to Qatar, while Robert Lewandowski’s tournament is up and running after his own sluggish start.
More Messi magic may well be required. But there’s only so many times they can ask him to turn a ‘turd’ into something truly tremendous.