Argentina need more than E.T. Lionel Messi to succeed at 2018 World Cup

James Piercy 12/10/2017
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Could he do it on a wet and windy Wednesday night in Stoke? Well, on a clammy evening in Quito at 2.8km above sea level, on a heavy, pocked pitch, with Argentina’s World Cup future at stake, Lionel Messi – as if he didn’t need to already – confirmed his greatness once again.

As one Brazilian exclaimed in Buenos Aires, “Messi is E.T. He’s not from this world.”

With Argentina needing victory to confirm qualification to Russia after a campaign of chaos and calamity, he scored the 44th hat-trick of his career, with the third of the three goals among his very best.

Darting forward at full speed, the ball glued to his instep, Messi was barged onto his left side. Somehow he sustained enough balance to get a shot away, before falling to the turf, managing not only to keep it on target but provide enough lift to guide it perfectly over the arms of Ecuadorian goalkeeper Maximo Banguera and into the net. It was a finish a player standing perfectly still with no defensive attention would be hard-pressed to replicate.

That’s the beauty of how he plays. This may have been Messi’s 609th career goal but there is always something extra, an unseen gem yet to be unlocked that Messi treats us all to every now and then. At 31 he is still rewriting ideas of what it is to be a footballer.

As coach Jorge Sampaoli admitted, Argentina are lucky to have him. In the last 11 months the only other goalscorer for La Albiceleste in competitive games has been Rolf Feltscher, and he plays for Venezuela. Without him they are a rag-tag collection of average to outstanding individuals without any sense of collective identity. Such were the gaping holes in their formation in Quito, Messi was playing three positions.

In one instance he would be collecting possession as a right-sided midfielder; a quick one-two with a team-mate would then supplant him as a central playmaker; and by the end of the next phase of action he was getting on the end of a cross.

There is a school of thought that, such is his dominance over how Argentina play, their fortunes live and die on his shoulders too heavily. Messi is king, queen, knight, bishop and rook to the 10 other pawns cast in white and sky blue; stop Messi and it’s checkmate.

That would carry some weight if the team had managed to deliver in his absence but of the nine qualifiers Messi missed, Argentina managed just one victory.

Argentina's Lionel Messi (C) celebrates

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (C) celebrates

Likewise, if he wasn’t producing, it could question the validity of relying so much on one man. But as Tuesday night showed, that opinion must be treated in hesitation, not a genuine process of thought to be mulled over.

However, it’s abundantly clear for Argentina to possess any kind of credible threat to Brazil, Germany or Spain next summer, they need more than Messi’s magistery.

The faults in Sampaoli’s squad are numerous: spoilt for choice in the final third, they have little defensive quality; the search for an international class full-back now stretches into a third World Cup; their midfield is cluttered with diligent ball carriers but none really able to provide any spark – the eternally-mercurial and frustrating Ever Banega the exception.

While Argentina will be there in the draw on December 1, far too many questions remain for Sampaoli to process all at once.

What constitutes his best front three or four? Does Gonzalo Higuain have an international future? Can he fit Paulo Dybala into this team? Can Banega string at least two good games together? Who is his best defensive midfielder? Does he have any defenders possessing a modicum of pace? Where have all of Argentina’s wide players gone?

Not only that, but at what stage can these individuals start replicating their club form for Argentina?

And that’s all on the surface, before we delve into tactical intricacies and team chemistry. Argentina won’t meet as a squad again until early November and mid-March after that.

Sampaoli is a coach whose methods are intrinsically linked to fostering a collective spirit: his Chile and Sevilla sides perfect examples of teams far greater than the sum of their parts. If, somehow, he can do that with Argentina’s weird mix of premier Rolls Royce machinery and second-hand throwaways, maybe, just maybe he can construct a World Cup winning side.

Or he can just refer back to E.T in his spaceship and Messi can try and reach his final frontier.

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Cristiano Ronaldo salutes team effort as Portugal leave it late to qualify for 2018 World Cup

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Cristiano Ronaldo saluted Portugal’s team effort after they secured their qualification for next summer’s World Cup.

The Euro 2016 winners may have left it late, requiring a victory over Switzerland in Tuesday night’s final group match to avoid dropping into the play-offs.

But an own goal from Johan Djourou and Andre Silva’s strike ensured Ronaldo, fitness permitting, will appear at his fourth finals and an eighth straight major tournament in Russia next year.

The 32-year-old wrote on Twitter:

Ronaldo will be joined by Lionel Messi, world football’s other undisputed superstar, at the finals after Argentina beat Ecuador 3-1.

Yet while Messi almost single-handedly dragged his side to Russia with a sparkling hat-trick it certainly required a team effort from Portugal, as Ronaldo was far from his best in Lisbon.

That is no longer unknown territory for Fernando Santos’ side, however, following their 1-0 victory over France to become European champions last year.

Their talisman was reduced to willing them on from the sidelines after he was injured early on in the final in Paris.

Midfielder Bernardo Silva says the team will use that same mentality when they attempt to repeat their European success on the world stage.

“We knew we had to win and fortunately with the support of all the Portuguese we got the victory and the qualification for the World Cup,” the Manchester City man told the Portuguese football Federation’s website.

“Fernando Santos gives a lot of confidence to the players. We are now looking forward to a good campaign in the World Cup.

“We have entered every game to win, it is the strength that our coach and team-mates convey to us, and we know that when we believe and think in this way, we are closer to winning.

“As Portugal did in the European Championship, they went into all the matches to win, that’s what we’re going to do at the World Cup.

“We’re going to try to win the World Cup, not knowing if that can happen or not, but we’re going to play every game to win.”

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Chile's Alexis Sanchez and Wales' Gareth Bale feature in all-star XI team that couldn't qualify for World Cup 2018

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Alexis Sanchez and Gareth Bale headline a host of big names who will be absent from next summer’s World Cup after their countries failed to qualify for the tournament.

Here, Press Association Sport picks an all-star XI from the players not on the plane to Russia.

JAN OBLAK (Slovenia/Atletico Madrid)

Voted the best goalkeeper in La Liga for the past two years, the 24-year-old’s hopes of appearing at a maiden World Cup were dashed after Slovenia were unable to progress from the qualifying group won by England.

Jan Oblak

Jan Oblak.

ANTONIO VALENCIA (Ecuador/Manchester United)

A string of consistent performances at right-back led to Valencia being named players’ player of the year at Old Trafford last season but the 32-year-old could not inspire Ecuador to what would have been his third World Cup.

Antonio Valencia

Antonio Valencia.

VIRGIL VAN DIJK (Holland/Southampton)

Van Dijk has made no secret of his desire to leave St Mary’s but, if he is still there next June, he will miss the opportunity to showcase his talents on the biggest stage following Holland’s third-placed finish in UEFA qualifying Group A.

Virgil Van Dijk

Virgil Van Dijk.

GARY MEDEL (Chile/Besiktas)

The former Sevilla and Inter Milan man wears his heart on his sleeve and is an influential figure for his country, but was unable to lead them to qualification as they missed out on the four automatic places and were edged out of the play-off spot by Peru.

Gary Medel

Gary Medel.

DAVID ALABA (Austria/Bayern Munich)

A winner of six Bundesliga titles and the Champions League, Alaba’s international career has been less illustrious with Austria’s abysmal Euro 2016 campaign his only experience of a major tournament.

David Alaba

David Alaba.

NABY KEITA (Guinea/RB Leipzig)

The Liverpool-bound midfielder will be fresh when he arrives at Anfield next summer after Guinea could not qualify from a group containing Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Libya.

Naby Keita (R)

Naby Keita (R).

ARTURO VIDAL (Chile/Bayern Munich)

The key midfielder, who starred in the last two World Cups, was suspended for Chile’s final qualifier against Brazil and watched on powerless from Munich as his team were eliminated.

Arturo Vidal

Arturo Vidal.

GARETH BALE (Wales/Real Madrid)

It has been a positive few years for Wales but the Euro 2016 semi-finalists were pipped to a play-off spot by the Republic of Ireland, meaning Bale’s wait for a first World Cup goes on.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale.

ARJEN ROBBEN (Holland/Bayern Munich)

A veteran of three World Cups, Robben announced his retirement from international football shortly after scoring twice against Sweden in the final match of Holland’s unsuccessful qualification campaign.

Arjen Robben

Arjen Robben.

ALEXIS SANCHEZ (Chile/Arsenal)

Chile suffered last-minute heartbreak as they were pushed out of a play-off place when Peru equalised against Colombia, meaning the Arsenal star will not be sprinting up the flanks for La Roja in Russia.

Alexis Sanchez

Alexis Sanchez.

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG (Gabon/Borussia Dortmund)

Gabon have never qualified for the World Cup and the African country’s shortage of top-class players means talented forward Aubameyang may never have the opportunity to play at one.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Substitutes:

Jasper Cillessen (Holland/Barcelona)
Daley Blind (Holland/Manchester United)
Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia and Herzegovina/Juventus)
Marek Hamsik (Slovakia/Napoli)
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia/Manchester United)
Riyad Mahrez (Algeria/Leicester)
Edin Dzeko (Bosnia and Herzegovina/Roma)

* Provided by Press Association Sport

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