It is a testament to Lionel Messi’s greatness that even now, hundreds of wonderful goals into an astonishingly consistent career, he can still make us get off our seats.
Either of the No.10’s first and second goals against Real Betis last weekend would have been the best strike of the season for a normal player. For Messi they were just the warm-up to something unbelievable, a finish that by now the entire world has seen ten times over, and that is unfathomable to even think up, let alone execute.
The cruel irony though is that just as Messi is entering the most complete phase of his career, he is also entering the last. The forward will turn 32 this year, and even for an apparent super-human like him, the time left at his absolute best is not unlimited.
This feels particularly relevant as he this week rejoins the Argentina squad for the first time in nine months. The opening steps in the final push to earn the international trophy that has evaded him, despite dragging his country to three international finals. Is there any hope?
Much has certainly changed since Messi last pulled on the Argentina shirt, when the South American nation went out in the Round of 16 at Russia 2018.
Most obviously, divisive Jorge Sampaoli has been replaced by the youthful energy of untested Lionel Scaloni. There is also a more youthful feel to the squad that has been picked to face Venezuela and Morocco in forthcoming March friendlies.
Gone are veterans Javier Mascherano (34) and Lucas Biglia (33), who have retired from international duty following the World Cup, while the likes of Éver Banega (30) and Enzo Pérez (33) simply weren’t picked.
Instead, it’s hoped that a fresh, energetic group of talent can solve the midfield puzzle that has persistently plagued Messi’s Argentina.
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“The midfield has been the national team’s major problem,” Argentinian football expert Manu Vieyra explains to talkSPORT. “Not since Juan Román Riquelme has there been a creative figure to help Messi break lines, and free Lio from doing too much work, having to drop deep to get the ball, create the move, play the pass then score the goal. That’s impossible even for Messi.”
“The three midfielders everyone thinks will help him are Giovani Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes and Exequiel Palacios. All three are looking good, have a lot of quality and they’re young,” he adds, noting that the long-term goal is to prepare the best team possible for Messi’s last World Cup at Qatar 2022.
But while Copa Libertadores winner Palacios (who has repeatedly been linked with Real Madrid) will likely require a move to Europe before consolidating his development, the other two are further down the road. In particular, Lo Celso, who has been one of the outstanding signings of the season in La Liga for Real Betis, the Andalucians bringing him in on a loan with an option to buy from PSG last summer.
Lo Celso is a box-to-box midfielder with 12 goals and four assists to his name in 2018/19, and Messi got to see just how good his compatriot is up close when the youngster was the key architect in Betis’ stunning 4-3 win over Barcelona at the Camp Nou in November. And Messi didn’t forget, judging by the way he upped his game to down Betis in last weekend’s return fixture.
There is quality in other lines of the pitch too, and in particular, developments at full-back are encouraging. Linking up with like-minded footballers in those areas has always been important for Messi’s game at club level, be it Dani Alves or more recently Jordi Alba, and Argentina may finally have such a figure in Nicolas Tagliafico. The left-back has scored five and assisted five more in 2018/19, including three goals in the Champions League, where he recently passed a huge test by helping the Dutch giants to eliminate Real Madrid from the competition in comprehensive fashion.
“Tagliafico isn’t just expected to be important, he’s a potential Argentina captain in the future. He’s the boss at left-back. Versatile, does great on the wing, and one of the big hopes for Argentinian football is that he can link up with Messi in a similar way to Alba,” Vieyra affirms.
“The idea is to finally build a team around our No.10 that can get back to competing, and work with the new generation for the 2022 World Cup. That’s the big goal, Qatar 2022,” he concludes.
And even if much could still change in the three years between now and Messi’s last attempt to take international football’s most prestigious prize, we will should get a chance to look at how his new group of team-mates fares far sooner.
The Copa América takes place in Brazil this summer, and Argentina producing an encouraging performance there would be a huge step in the right direction. The guy who wears their number 10 seems to be in decent form at least.