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

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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.