Is Messi Destined for Another Breakdown Ahead of World Cup?
Argentina might already be guaranteed their spot at next summer's FIFA World Cup in Brazil, but that doesn't mean star forward Lionel Messi will be given a reprieve for their last two qualification matches.
Marca are reporting that Julio Grondona, president of the AFA, has stated that Messi is likely to be called upon to avoid giving Argentina's final opponents an unfair advantage on the pitch and affect any possible qualification outcomes.
While it might not come as good news to fans of Barcelona, or perhaps even Messi himself following his injury troubles over the past five months, this is both a reasonable and an important decision that Argentina should make in their own best interests and nobody else's.
Messi's Fractured Five Months
At the end of March 2013, Messi played the full 90 minutes of Barcelona's league game against Celta Vigo.
He scored once in a 2-2 draw, his 43rd La Liga goal of the season and his 30th in an astonishing run which had seen him score in 19 consecutive matches in the competition.
A few days later, though, he was only on the pitch for Barça for 45 minutes as they faced Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. Messi was substituted at halftime with a hamstring injury. Though Barcelona tried to get him back quickly, he never really recovered his fitness or ability to impact a game until the end of the season.
Messi missed three league games, came on as sub in two more, started and played 70 minutes against Atletico Madrid and then missed the final three matches of the season as his injury continued to hamper him.
Barcelona also fell in the Champions League semifinal to a rampant Bayern Munich. Messi did not make it off the bench in the second leg with Bayern already out of sight, as they eventually won 7-0 on aggregate.
Over the summer, he has featured for Argentina in a friendly, scoring a hat-trick against Guatemala, and he's scored five goals in two games for his club in the new La Liga season.
Most recently, he netted a brace for his nation in their World Cup qualifier against Paraguay.
So, back to his best then?
It seems so, both in terms of fitness and goals, but Messi has rarely succumbed to injury previously. The fear appears to be that another intensive season of matches might put undue stress on a weakened area of his body.
Argentina's Hopes of Impacting on Brazil
Argentina, with manager Alejandro Sabella at the helm, have found themselves a way to play to Messi's strengths in a centre-forward role. They will presumably look to play the same way in the World Cup itself.
With the tournament staged on the soil of bitter rivals Brazil, the Albicelestes will be desperate to upset their hosts and perform well, perhaps even going all the way to challenge for the trophy they have not won since 1986.
To have the best chance of doing so, Sabella is going to have to take every one of the few opportunities he has between now and next summer of continuing to mould the team together, perhaps especially around Messi, their greatest hope.
Do they need to have a plan without Messi?
Of course, but it would perhaps be rather more straightforward to put one of their myriad top-class strikers in place—Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, maybe even Carlos Tevez again one day—than directly replace the Barcelona forward.
As such, playing as many matches with Messi as possible, just as with Javier Mascherano or Sergio Romero, is going to be increasingly important as the World Cup draws closer.
The match against Peru should be straightforward enough, but Uruguay could yet turn out to be an important rival once the tournament starts.
Will Two Games Really Affect Messi That Much?
The question of course is aimed at Argentina's competitive games, though there is a good chance that Messi will be required to play in international friendlies too, especially as June 2014 draws closer.
While the long-distance travelling might be of some concern, any continuing or recurring injury issues that Messi encounters this season are not likely to be because of his appearances for Argentina.
Instead, look toward his tally of matches for Barcelona.
Last season, even with those injuries, he featured 50 times for the Catalan side. In 2011-12, that number was 60. The season before that, 55.
Time and time again Messi is asked to play, or perhaps asks himself to play, in every competition, for every minute. As the world's best player, it's natural that he wants to be on the field as often as possible and also that his team want him there.
However, a hamstring injury in particular can be troublesome for someone who, like Messi, utilises acceleration and speed on a regular and repetitive basis during matches, along with all the awkward kicks, trips and falls he takes on account of his ability.
Barcelona, and boss Gerardo Martino in particular, are going to have to be a little more careful at the start of this campaign with Messi's fitness to ensure their own asset is protected and has enough left in the tank to see out another successful season.
From their point of view, they won't care if he doesn't play in the World Cup. But one year from now they'll be asking Messi to do it all over again.
Preventative measures are nothing new in football these days, but Barcelona would do well to take as many of them as possible with their No. 10 over the coming months. They already know that Messi will be representing his country in the final World Cup qualifiers in October, so preparations can already be made for rest and recuperation.
After all, not just Barcelona and Argentina, but the entire footballing world wants to see Messi at his peak both during the campaign and then in a major tournament.
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