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21st Jun 2018

World Cup Comments: The most common criticism of Lionel Messi is completely unfair

Messi couldn't inspire his team against Croatia

Robert Redmond

It was a difficult night for Messi and Argentina.

The South Americans lost their second game of the 2018 World Cup, falling to a 3-0 defeat to Croatia that leaves their hopes of progressing to the last-16 hanging by a thread. Argentina played poorly and didn’t deserve to get anything from the game. Some Argentine players looked out of their depth, and regardless of where they finish in Group D, this is the worst Argentina side we’ve seen at a World Cup for a very long time.

Yet, the focus will inevitably be on their captain over the next few days, and a common criticism will be levelled at him again. It’s the most common criticism directed at Lionel Messi – that he doesn’t reproduce his Barcelona form for his national team.

However, there is no basis for the claim that Messi doesn’t produce his best form for Argentina. He’s the country’s top-scorer ever, with 64 goals in 124 games, and was the main reason they reached three finals in the last four years.

In fact, the only reason Argentina are at the tournament in Russia is that Messi dragged them there.

As noted by South American football expert Tim Vickery, Messi missed eight rounds of qualification and Argentina collected just seven points in those games. In the 10 qualifiers he played, Argentina won 21 points. Messi’s hat-trick in the final qualification match against Ecuador ensured his team reached Russia, and his seven goals made him the team’s top scorer by a distance – no other Argentina player managed more than two goals in the campaign.

With Messi, Argentina finished third, on 28th points. Without him, they wouldn’t have got anywhere near the World Cup. If Messi didn’t do it for Argentina, then they wouldn’t be in Russia.

If Gonzalo Higuain could take his goal-scoring chances, Messi might already have won the World Cup, or at least the Copa America. Higuain missed sitters in the 2014 World Cup final and a year later in the Copa America final against Chile.

Yet, Messi has been criticised for not delivering a trophy for his country. In the aftermath of the defeat to Croatia, its likely to be a similar story. The responsibility for the defeat will be put on Messi.

There is only so much one player can do in a team. No matter how talented an individual is, football is a team game. The collective must function for the individual to shine. Cristiano Ronaldo might get the goals and the headlines for Portugal, but they’re a well-coached, experienced team, who won the Euro 2016 final against France in Paris without their captain, who left the field injured.

Unlike Argentina, there is structure to Portugal’s play. Against Iceland in the 1-1 draw, Argentina’s only tactic was to get the ball to Messi and for him to try to use his genius to influence the game. Messi was either crowded out by Iceland, or his teammates were off the pace and incapable of linking up with him. It was predictable and ineffective. Everything came down the middle, where Iceland were strongest. It was like trying to squeeze an elephant through a keyhole. But everything positive Argentina did still came from Messi, and it was the same against Croatia, albeit he wasn’t as centrally involved.

He was on the edge of the game, but still created some openings with clever passes. Ultimately, Messi was undone by his sub-par teammates, his indecisive coach – who couldn’t settle on a formation – and his goalkeeper. Willy Caballero’s error was incredible and conveyed why he was earning just his fifth cap at the age of 36.

Messi will mostly be the focus of attention after this defeat, but that’s unfair. Argentina were undone by a soft centre and descended into a shambles. Even Lionel Messi can’t keep rescuing such a disjointed and ramshackle team.


Lionel Messi