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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How Argentina is learning to win without Messi



Lionel Messi playing for Argentina at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar (Wikipedia via Tasnim News Agency)

By Felipe Cardenas / The Athletic


Lionel Messi, the magical player for Argentina’s national men’s soccer team, has not scored at this Copa América.


He has been slowed by a right adductor injury and has looked human in front of goal in his four appearances. A missed Panenka-style penalty kick against Ecuador in last week’s quarterfinal shootout victory exemplified his current form.


Argentina, though, continues to win. The defending Copa América and reigning World Cup champion, Argentina had a semifinal date with Canada on Tuesday night in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in part because it is learning to win without Messi — when he is on the field but less effective or when he is actually absent.


This stage in his career was always going to come eventually.


Messi is 37 and has been hampered by hamstring injuries since last fall. Even if he would like to, he can no longer carry Argentina’s national team on his back the way he once did.


That, however, has not diminished Messi’s influence on the team. He is the team captain and still Argentina’s emblem, and his play tends to elicit a feeling that his scoring drought could end at any moment.


Still, this Copa América has challenged Messi in different ways.


The playing surfaces in the United States, the tournament’s host country — in several cases, natural grass temporarily laid on top of artificial turf — are choppy and unpredictable.


The fields are also small, the smallest allowed for an official international match. In that shootout win against Ecuador, the dimensions of the field, 109 yards by 70 yards at the Houston Texans’ NFL stadium, boxed Messi into tight spaces. (NFL fields need to be 120 yards long but only 53 yards across.) Ecuador pounced when Messi gained possession.


“The truth is it was a difficult match, which was very hard to play,” Messi said afterward.


If this summer has proved anything, it is that Messi does not have to score to inspire Argentina to victory.


As he nears the end of a glorious playing career, Messi has become a selfless leader whose command of the international game is still crucial to the success of his team. No player on Argentina, for example, has been involved in more sequences leading to shots than Messi’s 22 this tournament, despite his sitting out the final group stage game against Peru.


Compare this to his rival Cristiano Ronaldo’s performances for Portugal at the European Championship in Germany. The world watched as Ronaldo’s obsession with trying to score came at the expense of Portugal’s mission to win the competition. Ronaldo failed to score at the Euros before Portugal was eliminated by France in the quarterfinals.


One tournament at age 39 will not diminish Ronaldo’s legacy — his 130 goals in international soccer, a record, is a staggering statistic — but the differences between his contributions to Portugal and Messi’s to Argentina over the past three weeks are striking. One has to wonder whether Messi has been watching events in Europe and doing everything possible to avoid becoming a similar burden for his country.


“I’ve seen how late he stays after training to recover in order to be with us,” Argentina midfielder Rodrigo De Paul said of Messi last week. “Leo is like an older brother to us. He gives us so many assurances. Perhaps we’ve spoiled our fans, but we have faith in the quality of our players.”


Under coach Lionel Scaloni, Argentina has found a core group of players who complement this version of Messi.


Alexis Mac Allister and Enzo Fernández are ball-playing central midfielders who allow No. 10 Messi to find positions farther upfield. Julián Álvarez does the pressing (the running, to put it another way), and Lautaro Martínez is among the best finishers in the world. If games get cagey, central defender Cristian Romero and goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez have done well to shut down the opposing team’s best attacks.


Scaloni has incorporated tactics and players that allow Messi to go with the flow of a match, rather than overload him with the responsibility to own it. He has the freedom to drift wide, drop deep and occupy that right-half space where he can be creative and dictate the attacking play.


He was at his best in the group stage opener against Canada on June 20. Canada let him roam freely, and Messi took advantage. His vision and passing led to Argentina’s two goals in a 2-0 victory. Álvarez and Lautaro Martínez scored from plays that came off Messi’s left foot. Jesse Marsch, Canada’s coach, was likely to try something different in Tuesday’s rematch.


Yet Messi still left the stadium that night regretting his missed chances in front of goal.


In the next match, against Chile, five days later, Messi’s first-half shot from outside the penalty area smacked the post and veered out of bounds, before the game became physical and he was slowed by tightness in his right adductor, which ruled him out against Peru.


Chances to score himself have been few in his three games at the tournament, but it is as a creator where Messi has excelled.


Against Chile, every dead ball that came off his foot was dangerous. Messi tried to beat Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, a former teammate of his at Barcelona, with an Olímpico corner kick. Messi has never scored directly from a corner. But when the goal closes for him in the run of play, the Olímpico has become one of his go-to alternatives in trying to score.


Bravo tipped that one over the crossbar, but Messi’s next whipped-in cross at the near post pinged in the box before Lautaro Martínez finished from close range. A Messi corner against Ecuador also led to a goal for Argentina.


“So much of what we do as football players depends on how we receive the ball or if the opponent anticipates what you’re going to do,” De Paul said on Telemundo before the tournament began.


He added: “If he wants to do something, he’ll do it. He’s the only player in the world like that. It’s all up to him. But it’s not easy to be Messi.”


This Copa América will be Messi’s last (it will not be played again until 2028). As it is two years until the next World Cup, it could yet be his final international tournament, period. On Sunday, Messi’s brother Matías, 42, told an Argentine radio station that “my brother’s beautiful film is coming to an end.”


De Paul let slip in that interview with Telemundo in May that he was preparing himself mentally to play that 2026 World Cup, hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada, without his close friend.


“Eventually the national team will no longer be about one person, because no one is like Leo,” De Paul said. “Because he won’t be at the next World Cup. I tell him that it’s going to be very difficult because he makes everything so much easier for us. We have all benefited from following him so closely. Leo has to be taken care of.”


Going into Tuesday night, Argentina was two wins away from back-to-back Copa América titles.


Depending on the outcome of the rematch with Canada, as difficult as it is for his team and the millions of fans who idolize Messi, it might now also be 90 minutes away -- or closer -- from having to move on without him.

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