Mauricio Pochettino is probably the only Argentinian who shed tears as Spurs succumbed in the Champions League to Juventus, with the possible exception of ‘80s Spurs legends, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa. Every other Argentinian would have been delighted that Juve’s front two of Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala are finding form just a few months before the World Cup. And one Argentinian in particular would have been overjoyed – Lionel Messi.
Russia 2018 is the stage where Messi could finally end all argument as to the identity of the greatest footballer in history. Of course, the same is true of Cristiano Ronaldo, but the suspicion remains that a continental title is probably the limit of Portugal’s ambitions. Argentina, by contrast, are genuine contenders for a global title.
Higuain and Dybala key to Argentina’s hopes
Four years ago in Brazil, Messi was largely on his own as Argentina reached the final on the soil of their greatest rivals. Only Javier Mascherano came close to matching his contribution to the team and that was in defence. In attack, Messi did all he could to will Argentina to victory. Ultimately, however, Higuain’s misses in the final left the door open for Mario Götze to win the World Cup for Germany.
That was not the only final in recent memory in which Higuain has misfired. A year later, at the Copa America in Chile, he missed another fine chance late on, one that had of course been set up for him by Messi. Once again, it was to prove extremely costly, as Chile won on penalties. And last year, Higuain made it a thoroughly unwanted hat-trick of major misses in major finals when he failed to score against Real Madrid in the Champions League Final.
The plain truth is that throughout his international career, Messi has not received the same kind of support for his own individual brilliance that he has enjoyed at club level with Barcelona. Indeed, for a while in Spain, he arguably played second fiddle to probably the greatest midfield axis in footballing history – ‘Xaviesta’, the compound of Xavi and Iniesta. With Argentina, he has never experienced a fellow countryman coming anywhere near his heights in a major tournament, at either continental or global level.
The hope in Buenos Aires, Rosario and the rest of Argentina, who can only watch their Europe-based stars from afar, is that this summer things will be different. With Higuain and Dybala picking Tottenham’s pocket so expertly, scoring two goals in three minutes, Juventus have advanced to the last eight of the Champions League. Along with the first genuine title race in Serie A for several years, where Juve have to fend off a resurgent Napoli, the end of the season should see the pair sharpen their form and goal-scoring ability before they reach Russia. As long as they avoid injury, there is every chance that they will arrive at the World Cup with their games honed to the kind of perfection required to match Messi.
The Juventus forwards are not alone in being invaluable support for Messi. In England, Sergio Aguero has proved beyond doubt that he is the best out-and-out, or ‘pure’, striker in the world. With the Premier League all but secured, Manchester City will be free to focus on the Champions League. Consequently, it is possible that, unless they meet en route, the other three great Argentinian attackers could all be lining up in the Champions League Final in Kiev.
Attacking talent not enough
Unfortunately, Argentina knows that attacking talent alone will not be enough to win the World Cup. Even if Aguero, Higuain and Dybala stay fit and firing for Russia, allowing Messi to adopt a more withdrawn midfield role from which he can really pull the strings, grave doubts remain about Argentina in goal and in defence. Their first-choice goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, is very much a second choice at Manchester United. (To be fair to him, every goalkeeper in the world is a second choice to David De Gea.) Sitting on the bench is hardly ideal preparation for the high tension line of a World Cup tournament.
The situation in defence is arguably even worse. Mascherano is now plying his trade in the distinctly second-tier Chinese league. Even if selected by Jorge Sampaoli for Russia, there is no guarantee that he will make the first team. If he doesn’t play, Argentina’s best defensive player is probably Nicolás Otamendi. He, like Aguero, has been revived this season at City by Pep Guardiola.
Nevertheless, it is hard to see Argentina in 2018 providing the same kind of defensive solidity that Diego Maradona’s team achieved in 1986. If anyone today remembers anyone in that team apart from Maradona, it is probably the two Jorges – Valdano and Burrachaga – who were Maradona’s attacking foils. But it is arguable that even more important to Argentina’s triumph that year was the central defensive partnership of Oscar Ruggieri and the marvellously named José Luis Brown. Certainly Argentina have no-one to compare to their class now.
It all means that if Messi, perhaps with a little support from Aguero, Higuain and Dybala, can win the World Cup for Argentina, then his achievement might be even greater than that of Maradona more than thirty years ago.