Lionel Messi's Genius Highlights Argentina's Biggest Strength and Greatest Flaw

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Lionel Messi's Genius Highlights Argentina's Biggest Strength and Greatest Flaw
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Anything Neymar can do, his Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi can do better.

Or, at least as far as this World Cup is concerned, just as well.

On Monday evening, Neymar scored twice as Brazil secured their place in the last 16 of the World Cup—his sharp finishing propelling his side to a 4-1 victory over Cameroon.

It was the Selecao poster boy’s third and fourth goals in three games at this World Cup, leaving him top of the fledgling goalscoring charts.

On Wednesday afternoon, Messi continued matching his friend’s record step for step, scoring his third and fourth goals of the tournament as Argentina duly clinched the top spot in Group F with a 3-2 victory over Nigeria.

It is hardly excessive to suggest that such breezy progress comes almost entirely down to the 27-year-old, just as Brazil can thank Neymar for their relatively painless march. Argentina may have been handed a slightly easier group than their neighbours, but Messi has been the one who has dragged them above the competition.

He scored the winner against both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran—two breathtaking moments of individual brilliance to lift otherwise stunted attacking displays—and then twice put his side ahead against Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria, before Marcos Rojo’s header eventually maintained the Albiceleste’s 100-percent record.

This was still Messi’s moment, though, perhaps more so than in either of the previous two games. In those, Messi had eventually grabbed the headlines, but his flashes of brilliance only really seemed to obscure the previous absence of such quality—as he struggled for consistency in front of the world’s glare.

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Against Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the opener at the famous Maracana, he looked both nervous and under pressure, a man unusually desperate to impress. His passes went astray and his runs and attempts at goal did not quite come off—until one finally did, to his obvious relief.

Against Iran, similarly, he was often frustrated in his attempts to penetrate a well-organised defence, until Reza Ghoochannejhad showed him inside onto his left foot, 25 yards from goal, deep into injury-time.

The rest is (recent) history.

But against Nigeria, we saw a more consistent Messi, an even more impressive one. If fans at home have been demanding that their greatest current player emulate the legendary Diego Maradona and dominate this tournament, just as the great No. 10 did in 1986, then this was the performance that suggested he just might do exactly that in the weeks to come.

Messi was dominant from the opening moments, finding the net in emphatic fashion from a rebound after just three minutes. He then proceeded to exert his considerable influence on proceedings, floating into pockets of space and involving his team-mates with a fluency that had not always been evident before.

On occasions, he seemed to be toying with his opponents. A 35-yard free-kick was tipped wide by Vincent Enyeama. Moments later, from a few yards closer in, the net was rippling from an almost identical effort; Enyeama shaking his head as Messi ran off in celebration.

It was a sequence of play that summed up his day. Confident, in control, untouchable.

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The forward was substituted just after the hour mark, his job done for the day. Three wins from three, and an improved team performance to build upon as the knockout stages begin.

"We played against a team that wanted to play," Messi told reporters, per Karl Ritter of The Associated Press, afterwards. "I think we saw a good Argentina. We need to continue on this path."

Now in the knockout rounds, the safety net has been removed for Argentina and all other sides. Messi is currently not only their biggest weapon but their biggest worry: If he suddenly is unable to produce, through injury or other cause, will the team still be able to find a way to win?

With or without Messi, Argentina should have enough to overcome Switzerland in the last-16, but beyond that, more of the supporting cast will surely need to step up and support their talisman if the return to the Maracana many hope for is to become a reality.

Not all teams will "want to play," as Nigeria did, and many will surely now be more certain than ever that focusing their defensive efforts on Messi will be the key to keeping Argentina at bay.

Neymar is in a similar predicament, just as he is playing the same role as Messi for his country, he, too, is still waiting for his Brazil team-mates to rise up and follow his example.

Beyond Messi, Argentina have been described as an average side, and perhaps with good reason. They have a number of talented players in all areas of the pitch, but that has only fleetingly been displayed so far in the competition.

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Messi has had little support in attack; Sergio Aguero still appears to be fighting a muscle injury, while Gonzalo Higuain has yet to really find his rhythm after being surprisingly left on the bench to start the tournament.

In midfield, Angel Di Maria has perhaps been Argentina’s best performer not named Messi, but there are still questions about the shield in front of defence that is clearly not among the world’s best.

There was evidence of improvement against Nigeria, but, for now, Messi’s brilliance is masking those flaws. Coach Alejandro Sabella believes his team-mates are getting there, though.

"We started improving from the point of view of structure," Sabella told reporters, via Sky Sports. "We see an improvement as a whole.

"The weakness we discuss at home in private. You can win not playing well and still have things to correct, I'm pleased about the nine points but we must always improve."

This is not dissimilar to Brazil’s reaction to the final group game. Just as Neymar lauded their best performance of the tournament, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari acknowledged that there was still much room for improvement as the pressure increases.

The two tournament favourites seem to be wrestling with the same demons; their star players are so influential, so dominant, that it is proving difficult to set out a balanced, efficient team around them.

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The expectation—perhaps even the hope—is that Brazil and Argentina will meet each other in the final next month, allowing Neymar and Messi the chance to engage in the ultimate battle for supremacy at the storied Maracana.

But getting to that point might depend more on whether both players’ team-mates and coaches can improve their cohesion and organisation to overcome the challenge in that one game where their star leader is unable to produce.

Then again, perhaps it would be foolish to bet against Messi—or his club pal—sustaining his displays of brilliance all the way to the Maracana.

Sometimes you cannot legislate for genius; you just get out of the way and let it happen.

As Scolari told reporters, per David Waldstein of The New York Times, when questioned about Brazil's dependence on Neymar:

"Just as Argentina depends on Messi and other teams depend on other stars. But that’s okay.

"They are very high-level players, and star players make a difference."

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