Leo Messi has, generally speaking, played his best football for Barcelona, and has often been disappointing while in the blue and white of Argentina. This is perhaps not surprising, because in Catalunya he is the king, the main man without peer and, crucially, compared to few. Messi has contributed more to his club than basically any other player in their history, bar possibly Johan Cruyff and László Kubala.
In Argentina things are rather different. Every action for the Albiceleste is measured against Diego Maradona. Every win, every goal, every flick is compared - usually not favourably - to the other great No.10 in Argentina's history. It's no wonder he has perhaps struggled for his national team – Maradona went through his career with few comparables, but Messi will always have Maradona.
Of course, the most frequent hit against Messi is that he will have to repeat Maradona's feat of basically winning the World Cup on his own if he is ever to be considered the equal of or even better than his predecessor.
However, if Argentina continue playing as they did against Switzerland, and did for spells in the group stage, then Messi will have to play much better in 2014 than Maradona did in 1986 if they are to win the World Cup.
Back then, while Maradona's performance was utterly extraordinary and it would be churlish to suggest anything else, he at least had a supporting cast who could take the pressure off him once in a while. Argentina's defence that year was exceptional, conceding just five times throughout the tournament (two of which were in the final – they let in only Gary Lineker's consolation in the knockout rounds), while Maradona was also supported by the likes of Jorge Valdano and others, who chipped in with nine goals between them. Additionally, Maradona didn't score in the final, which of course is not to denigrate his obviously decisive contribution, but merely to illustrate that he had a good amount of help.
In contrast, Angel di Maria's late winner was just the second goal scored by an Argentina player other than Messi, coming after Marcos Rojo's header against Nigeria, and while their record of conceding three goals in four games isn't bad, they haven't exactly come up against offensive titans thus far. Those three goals were scored by Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria, who managed just five in five other matches between them.
Beyond Messi, Di Maria has been their only real performer of note at the World Cup, and he was largely terrible against Switzerland until Messi teed him up for a well-taken winner. It was a far cry from his performance against Nigeria, which I wrote about here, and it perhaps only served to highlight the deficiencies elsewhere in the Argentina side. When Di Maria is on form he can do the jobs of two or three players, but when he isn't the team can be exposed.
While the defence was shaky, goalkeeper Sergio Romero an accident waiting to happen and little creativity came from the rest of the midfield, it is perhaps Messi's forward partners that are the biggest problem.
Higuain, Aguero, Lavezzi and Palacio scored a combined total of 87 goals this season. No goals & just 7 shots on target between them at WC.
— Matthew Stanger (@MatthewStanger) July 1, 2014
As this stat shows, the four players that have lined up alongside Messi in Argentina's forward line simply haven't contributed. Sergio Aguero could be excused because of his injury, but he was a shadow of the threat he can be when he was playing, while Gonzalo Higuain has been listless. Ezequiel Lavezzi offers them more balance, but he has been ineffective as well.
If his Twitter feed is anything to go by, Carlos Tevez hasn't been paying an enormous amount of attention to the World Cup, focusing instead on the golf course. As Rodrigo Palacio ran around gamely but slightly aimlessly against the Swiss, Alejandro Sabella would be forgiven for cursing his own stubbornness in not calling up Tevez, given the superb season he has just enjoyed with Juventus.
They are in the last eight, and with not many other stand-out teams left in the tournament Argentina are of course among the favourites to win the World Cup. However, if they are to triumph in Rio on July 13, then on the basis of the Switzerland game Messi will have to eclipse Maradona's performance in 1986.
- Sports & Recreation
- Diego Maradona
- Leo Messi