Where would Argentina be without Lionel Messi?
Probably not atop the World Cup qualifying standings. But luckily, nobody has to think about that.
In his latest display of heroics on Tuesday, Messi scored another goal to lead his side to a 2-1 win over Chile, which gives Argentina a 6-2-1 record and a total of 20 points in the standings. Ecuador is three points behind at 17, and Columbia is in third with 16.
The captain, as expected, has been the star of the show and has solidified Argentina as one of the top teams to be reckoned with as qualifying continues. His goal on Tuesday gives him three in Argentina's last two games—and those two games have been crucial in keeping Argentina atop the standings.
After the win, Messi told the Associated Press via the Boston Herald:
It was a good couple of days for us. Six points against difficult teams like Uruguay and Chile. But when this resumes in March, it will be just as difficult. But obviously six points help us relax.
It was a crucial win for Argentina because it sets the tone heading into the long layoff until March. It established—or reestablished—that Argentina is still the team to beat and the team to fear. Now, Ecuador, Colombia and the rest of the contenders have several long months to figure out how they're going to find a way to take down the beast.
And that begins with stopping Messi, a task that looks more and more impossible with every game he plays.
In total, Messi has 31 goals for his side, which, according to the AP, lands him just two shy of Diego Maradona on Argentina's career scoring list.
It's not only Messi's skill and heroics that have made Argentina so formidable; it's also the way the rest of the team responds to him. His mere presence makes Argentina that much more formidable because it gives his club an unshakable confidence.
As coach Alejandro Sabella told the Associated Press via the Khaleej Times on Tuesday, "He’s really, really inspired and the group around him is responding."
Now, the hard work is over until the end of March. At that point, Argentina will begin the qualifying once again with matches against Venezuela (12 points) and Bolivia (eight points).
And at that point, there is no reason to suspect that Argentina's momentum will drop off, or that Messi will suddenly stop dominating. Thirty-one total goals (12 this year) says it all.
Argentina has the most lethal wild card of all, and when the World Cup finally does roll around, no team is going to be looking forward to taking it on.