World Cup 2014 Roundup: Lionel Messi's Christmas Break Crucial to Argentina

Alex RichardsContributor INovember 11, 2013

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - FEBRUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of Argentina in action during the International Friendly match between Sweden and Argentina at the Friends Arena on February 6, 2013 in Stockholm, Sweden.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

The Barcelona and Argentina talisman Lionel Messi has succumbed to yet another muscle injury—his third of the season already—and faces six-eight weeks on the sidelines.

No longer can it be just a coincidence; since Pep Guardiola's departure, the problems of his formative years under Frank Rijkaard—which meant he missed the 2006 Champions League final win over Arsenal and suffered with muscle problems in his legs—are back and wreaking havoc.

During Guardiola's four-year stint as manager at Camp Nou, La Pulga made 51, 53, 55 and 60 appearances in each respective campaign.

He simply didn't miss games, never picked up niggles and was at his physical peak.

However, after picking up a problem last season and being rushed back for the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, he simply hasn't returned to 100 percent—either through forcing himself to return to soon or because of the club's need—and, as a consequence, more muscle problems have been forthcoming.

Even his on-field demeanour has changed, with him appearing less joyous than he has in past years, while his style of play has seemingly morphed from "False 9" to a more pure No. 9, spending increasing time on the shoulders of defenders and less dropping deep, turning and running at opposing defences with the ball at his feet.

From the outside looking in—and it seems incredibly harsh on a player whose productivity remains at such a ridiculously high level—he has looked as though he has been doubting his body.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - FEBRUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of Argentina in action during the International Friendly match between Sweden and Argentina at the Friends Arena on February 6, 2013 in Stockholm, Sweden.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

And while it is a worry to Los Cules, unquestionably it is to Alejandro Sabella also.

Since taking over the Albiceleste, Sabella has sought to provide Messi with a platform from where he can do his best work.

The four-time Ballon d'Or winner has been used either as a No. 10 behind Gonzalo Higuain, with both scoring goals for fun during qualifying, or as a member of a fluid front trio—alongside two of either Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi or Rodrigo Palacio—with the freedom to pretty much do as he pleases. 

As such, he has increasingly produced the kind of decisive moments for the Albiceleste that have come to characterise his club career.

But heading to Brazil next summer, what Sabella needs is his captain at his physical peak, with the explosive acceleration and the desire to drive past defenders; a body doubting himself and struggling, no matter how talented, can only have a detrimental effect.

For that to be the case, Sabella needs Messi to put these muscle problems behind him and to have full mobility and maximum explosiveness about his play.

He also, as simple as this sounds, needs him to be happy.

Messi now faces being an onlooker in Catalunya until the new year. Anyone who has ever seen his face while he's been forced to watch a match from the stands is only too aware that it isn't his favourite place.

But the simple fact of the matter is that he needs to rest, to rehab and to get himself back to 100 percent, not rush his recovery and returning at 70, 80 or 90 percent. Only 100 percent will suffice.

Only then will he have full confidence in his body and will he truly believe that he can make the difference on the very biggest stage.

He needs to erase the thing which is the very worst thing that can penetrate a footballer's mind: doubt.

The body needs rest and perhaps the mind does, too.

Certainly doing so will only help him as he looks to prove his greatness next summer on the greatest stage of them all.

GDANSK, POLAND - JUNE 18:  Luka Modric of Croatia reacts during the UEFA EURO 2012 group C match between Croatia and Spain at The Municipal Stadium on June 18, 2012 in Gdansk, Poland.  (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)
Alex Grimm/Getty Images

Croatia must get back to basics or risk strife in Iceland

"Our first priority in Iceland will be to score an all-important away goal and we also want to look like a decent team." (via

So said new Croatia boss Niko Kovac, ahead of his managerial debut in charge of the country that he represented in such a distinguished manner on 83 occasions.

Back in March, Croatia under Igor Stimac were well placed to challenge Belgium for top spot from Group A.

However, found tactically and technically wanting, they lost three of their last four matches and looked a mess: the defensive line in Zagreb against Belgium was an utter shambles, rightly punished by Romelu Lukaku, and they seemed painfully short of ideas in both defeats by Scotland where they failed to score. 

Now, against a youthful and exuberant Iceland—who, make no mistake, are capable of scoring goals (just ask Switzerland)—Kovac needs his side to get back to something like their best; defensively organised, inventive in attack and tenacious in all areas of the field.

If they can do that, then the likes of Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic can flourish and should put Lars Lagerback's side to the sword.

But if they aren't, and they give Iceland an inch, then don't be surprised if Gylfi Sigurdsson and Co. take a mile.

Zlatan vs. Cristiano

It's a shame that these two genuine footballing behemoths are to do battle now and that one must be sacrificed ahead of next summer.

However, it's also rather brilliant that they are about to do battle, such has been their respective form in recent weeks.

Sweden's shining light, the man who almost turns Erik Hamren's rather unimaginative, workmanlike outfit into something far more, has been bludgeoning opponents with some of 2013's most brilliant goals—think of those at Anderlecht and against Bastia in particular.

His return in his last eight games for club and country: 14 goals.

Cristiano Ronaldo has long set the standard at both Portugal and with Real Madrid, and Paulo Bento will be banking on him to lead his country to another major finals—lest we forget, they were semi-finalists at last summer's European Championships, only losing on penalties to winners Spain.

His return in his last eight games for club and country: 12 goals.

Perhaps it is an over-simplicity to suggest that whichever of football's giants shows their best over two legs will take their country to Brazil. Likewise, maybe it's too simple to say that he who deals with the weight of a nation resting on their shoulders best will take their side to the finals.

But it certainly seems that way.


Twitter: @AA_Richards