Lionel Messi: How Argentina Have Finally Unlocked His Potential
Lionel Messi has won nearly every individual award in the game over the past few seasons.
But until recently, he was still the target for much criticism in Argentina, having failed to translate his club form into success in the international arena.
Now captaining his country, Messi has done everything in his power to prove the critics wrong.
A sensational return of 12 goals in nine international games in 2012 has seen him rise to fourth in the country's all-time goalscoring charts. Next in his sights is a certain Diego Maradona.
Let's take a look at how Argentina have finally got the best out of Lionel Messi...
El Capitán: A Sense of Being
When Alejandro Sabella came into the job as head coach of the Argentina National Team, he took over a side in a state of shock, after a disastrous performance in the 2011 Copa America that they themselves had hosted.
Sabella offered a change in approach from the outspoken, brash managers who had preceded him and immediately set about changing the dynamics of the team.
Fan favourite Carlos Tevez was discarded, while Messi was made captain.
It was a bold call, given Tevez's heroic status amongst many fans in Argentina, but it was a decision that has reaped benefits for the team as a whole.
Both Maradona and Sergio Baptista in their spells as coach had fallen into the trap of trying to find ways to shoehorn the creative talents of Tevez, Messi, Pastore, Lavezzi and Aguero into the same team.
Sabella, instead, made an immediate decision: Messi was to be the captain and chief playmaker of his side.
Sabella: A Man with a Plan
With Messi installed as the side's leader, Sabella set about righting the wrongs of recent years.
With less forwards now involved, Argentina could focus on building a side that were competent in all areas of the pitch.
Sabella has built a midfield upon the settled foundation offered by Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago, with Angel Di Maria helping to form a three-man unit when out of possession.
In attack, the Real Madrid winger was then given the freedom to break forward and join the side's three forwards.
This solid base and well-defined attacking structure allows Messi to excel from his right-sided starting position.
With Higuain drifting to the right from his centre-forward role and Aguero coming infield off the left, Messi has space and freedom to drift into more central areas and influence play in-and-around the penalty area.
Solving the Tevez Problem
Where to start with Carlos Tevez?
The man manages to create headlines for his brilliant play and controversial behaviour in almost equal measure. A proud former Boca Juniors player from a downtrodden area of Buenos Aires, Tevez is the true heir to Maradona as the people's champion.
Through no fault of his own, though, Tevez creates a problem for Argentina managers.
With Higuain firmly installed as the team's centre-forward, Tevez is forced to play from wider areas, where his effect is limited. Sergio Batista had tried to drop him, but was forced to reconsider under the weight of pre-Copa America pressure.
His presence also creates a problem for Messi, with Tevez continually the stick with which to beat the Barcelona man. Although Tevez himself was often also well below par, his rugged, all-action style suggested to many that he was "more committed" than his teammate.
By removing Tevez from the equation, Sabella is no longer forced to crowbar a place for him in the side, and in the process has removed another obstacle for Messi.
Ultimately, the duo's presence in the same team was causing both players' performances to suffer.
Sabella chose to back Messi.
The Importance of Aguero
When Argentina lined up in the group stage of their ill-fated Copa America challenge, they did so without a place for Aguero in the starting 11.
The Manchester City forward then proceeded to win himself a place with a series of influential appearances off the bench.
Sabella has realised the importance of Aguero to his side and in particular to the performance of Lionel Messi. Playing from a withdrawn role on the left of the attacking trio, Aguero's creative influence now offers Argentina an alternative route to goal.
While there are no longer too many players trying to influence proceedings in attack, it is also not a case of the side being too reliant on Messi.
Aguero's work-rate and vision from deep instead allow the Barcelona star breathing space in which to work his undisputed magic.
The fluidity of the forward-line, with Di Maria also often overlapping on the left flank, has probably been the biggest success of the Sabella era to date.
The Myth Finally Dispelled
Messi's previous performances for Argentina were not as poor as they were made out to be, with criticism often based solely on a lack of goals.
They were made to appear worse than they were, though, by his scarcely believable performances in a Barcelona shirt.
The immense pressure of playing for the Albicelestes can affect even the best player, especially with a support so quick to criticise his loyalty and attachment to the country he left aged 13.
Now, with Sabella's changes taking effect, the confidence is flowing through his veins and the superhuman of the Camp Nou has started to emerge.
The spectre of Tevez has been lifted and Messi's performances have won over many of his doubters. He can now perform in the knowledge that he won't have his place in the team questioned after a single poor display.
Happiness and confidence play a remarkably important role in determining a player's ability to play to their best on the football pitch, and where Argentina are concerned, Messi's cloud has finally been lifted.
Sabella has made him feel important to the team and offered him complete support.
The harnessing of Messi's talent could well be the most important long-term achievement of Sabella's reign.
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