Lack of quality adds to Messi’s heavy burden
Argentina needs a few more stars to come out to play in Brazil
Angel Di Maria celebrates with team-mate Lionel Messi after scoring Argentina’s winning goal in extra-time during the World Cup Round of 16 game against Switzerland at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
Anyone who is following the World Cup from Brazil has to have been struck by the enormous pressure on Neymar, the 22-year-old who is carrying the country’s hopes on his skinny shoulders.
Neymar is not the only player who knows he faces the judgment of history over the next two weeks. Lionel Messi has the task of proving himself the equal of Diego Maradona and to do that he has to win the World Cup.
But is the pressure on Messi any greater on the other 22 players in Argentina’s squad, each desperate not to be the one who let Messi down?
Argentina are in the quarter-finals thanks to another spark of match-winning brilliance from their number 10, but if they are going to win the whole thing the other 10 have a lot of catching up to do. On yesterday’s showing, only Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano are worthy of being in the same team as Messi.
Argentina’s problems begin at the back, where they have a central defensive partnership that is in no real sense a partnership.
Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez do not have any instinctive understanding of each other. When the play comes towards them they are usually moving in opposite directions, except at the moments when that would be the right decision.
Garay tries to compensate by bossing Fernandez about. When the junior partner has the ball, Garay usually points to indicate which way he should pass it. It almost looks as though he isn’t confident that Fernandez can make the right decision unaided.
It’s almost like Argentina have a remote-control player at the heart of their defence.
But football doesn’t give you time to talk your team- mates through every situation and Argentina’s defence fell apart on 40 minutes, as a quick Swiss ball forward found Xherdan Shaqiri on half-way. Both Argentine central defenders moved towards him, realising too late that they had forgotten about Josip Drmic, now unmarked with a clear run on goal.
The miss was excruciating because any kind of decent chip would have beaten the keeper, who initially advanced out of his goal to try to cut out a through-ball he never could have reached, then froze in no-man’s land. It was Romero’s third panicky moment in five minutes.
The Swiss appeared to have noticed his panicky mood because in the second half they started shooting on sight. Luckily for Argentina, the Swiss shooting was awful.
Argentina started the match at a languid tempo, and became steadily slower and more ponderous. It was all about getting the ball to Messi and then standing back to admire what he did next.
Ottmar Hitzfeld revealed after the match he had told his team to have three or four players near Messi at all times, cutting off the supply, blocking his angles.
The Swiss kicked Messi plenty too and eventually he got so frustrated that he grabbed an opponent who had taken the ball from him and blatantly pulled him back. The referee played advantage and it seemed certain he would return at the end of the move to book Messi, but it somehow slipped his mind.
Messi had little creative help from the central midfielders, Mascherano and Fernando Gago. While Mascherano’s importance is plain in that he is the real leader of the team on the pitch – he does all the talking Messi doesn’t do – it is not easy to discern what Gago is bringing to the side.
Decoy role With Gonzalo Higuain forced into a sacrificial decoy runner role reminiscent of John Aldridge in the Jack Charlton teams, the only player besides Messi who threatened
was Di Maria, who eventually scored with his 10th shot on target of a match in which no other player had more than three.
Di Maria was the recipient of plenty of rough treatment from the Swiss, but he showed energy and courage to persevere to the end.
Before that late winner, Argentina had had to endure the humiliation of being taunted by the large Brazilian element in the crowd as the Swiss put a series of passes together. If they had gone out on penalties, the inquest would have been savage.
“I have no criticism to make of the players, they played a good game,” said the coach, Alejandro Sabella. He cannot believe that, but there is not much point saying anything else at this stage. All Sabella can do is hope that Messi keeps producing enough decisive moments to offset the goals his defence and goalkeeper are sure to concede.
Four down, three to go.