As Argentina took on Venezuela in World Cup qualification on Friday night, all eyes were once more on captain Lionel Messi to inspire the Albiceleste to victory in the Estadio Monumental. The No. 10 did not disappoint.
The times of Messi "not performing" for his country, although a somewhat unfair accusation, are now consigned to the distant past.
Following a goal late in the first half, the Barcelona man lapped up the adulation of the home crowd in Buenos Aires—a clear sign that the mistrust towards him is no longer prevalent.
Since Messi was installed as captain of his country in September 2011, his performance levels on the international scene have notably improved. With additional responsibility and a more balanced team around him, the Argentine audience is now finally seeing his very best side.
On Friday night, he was exemplary once more. Right from the opening minutes, when he drifted infield from his starting position and fired a testing shot at goal, it was clear that he was in determined mood.
By the time that half-time came around, Argentina knew that they had the game sewn up, and it was largely due to the wonderful abilities of the little maestro.
A wonderful, quick, one-touch build-up had enabled Gonzalo Higuain to score the side's opening goal midway through the first half, and, as ever, Messi was the key figure in the move
While the movement and general passing of his colleagues had been good, it was the perfectly weighted first time ball of the Barcelona man that eventually presented Higuain with the opportunity. His colleague made no mistake.
Then in the final moments of the half, it was Messi who forced defender Gabriel Cichero into a rash handball. From the spot, he then delivered with his usual precision.
After the break, it was more of the same story. Having forced another fine save from goalkeeper Daniel Hernandez, he would repeat his trick by once more picking out a sublime through ball to supply the clinical Higuain.
It wasn't just in the build-up to goals where he came to the fore, though. With Ezequiel Lavezzi adding pace and industry on the left flank, Messi was free to roam from the right flank and was an ever-threatening presence in between the forward lines. It is a role that he plays better than anyone else when on form.
However, it was not all fun and games for the gifted playmaker on the night.
As his influence grew, so did the strength of the tackling, and one body check in particular from Hamburg midfielder Tomas Rincon left him sporting a nice bruise under his left eye. As ever, though, rough treatment failed to knock him out of his rhythm.
Messi has found his role in Alejandro Sabella's side, and, as everyone in football is clearly aware, there is no one more dangerous than the Ballon d'Or winner when integrated into an effective team unit.
Argentina's improvement ahead of the 2014 World Cup will worry their rivals. They will be better suited to the conditions in Brazil than most, and they appear to have ironed out the defensive issues that dogged the reigns of recent managers.
Add to that the special talents of Messi, and it is clear that they will hope to go a long way in the tournament next year.
Overall rating - B+: Argentina may not have been facing an elite opponent, but both the team and their captain were in fine form. Messi was integral to the side's success and, at times, dissected his opposition seemingly at will. All in all, it was nothing less than what we have come to expect from the world's best player.
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