Argentina are into the semifinals of the World Cup, but they might have a tough time advancing if Lionel Messi does not play his absolute best in the next two matches.
The South American squad came into the tournament known as having the best attack in the world. Not only was Messi expected to resume his elite scoring ability, but European club stars like Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain are also capable of brilliant plays.
Unfortunately, fitness is starting to become a major problem for the talented squad. Aguero has missed the past two matches with leg injuries and Di Maria might be facing a serious thigh injury, according to Fox Sports:
Although there is still a chance that one or both players could start in the next match, it is clear that they will be less than 100 percent in the contest.
As a result, Argentina will rely even more on Messi than usual in the upcoming match, but it will not be in the way he is normally used.
Through five matches in Brazil, the Barcelona star has scored four goals. Only Colombia's James Rodriguez has scored more, though his team was eliminated by Brazil in the quarterfinals. The problem going forward is that Messi would have to do a lot more by himself, not relying on the passing ability of Di Maria or the extra attention from fellow goal-scorers.
We have certainly seen him be quite skilled at dribbling past opponents like against Marouane Fellaini of Belgium, as Sam Wallace of The Independent joked:
To say that Fellaini is struggling to get the ball off Messi doesn't quite do it justice. They appear to be playing different sports— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceIndy) July 5, 2014
However, it is hard to consistently turn these into goals. Instead, Messi has to become more than just a scorer and use his footwork to start plays rather than finish them. With everyone keeping their eyes on him, he will have to find ways to also distribute to his teammates.
Squawka Football notes that he was solid in this respect against Belgium in more of a midfield role:
Of course, his best pass of the day (and one of the best at the World Cup) in the first half didn't result in a goal, via Pablo Maurer of MLSSoccer.com:
Messi's through ball to Di Maria. How on earth do you.... just... I can't... Wow. https://t.co/58yv1tRTzg— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) July 5, 2014
If he can make plays like this to set up teammates, Argentina will be much more dangerous. Manager Alejandro Sabello explained after the latest win, via Matthew Futterman of The Wall Street Journal:
"It is not only about scoring goals," Sabello said after the match. "It is having the ball and bringing together three opponents.” Sabello said every move Messi makes is “a sign of hope for us,” that a player who receives the ball as Messi does and so rarely gives it up “is water in the desert” for the team. “Today when it was dry he gave us that breath of fresh air every time he held on to the ball.”
This is the type of impact he has to have in every match. When he gets the ball, he has to not only be looking at the net but also for teammates who will likely be open.
Messi finished with 11 assists this past league season at Barcelona, so he has shown the ability to be a distributor when he needs to be. This is one of those times, as Argentina need him to be more versatile than ever before.
Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated discusses the superstar's potential:
Messi's World Cup now if he keeps this up.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) July 5, 2014
Sitting and waiting for the ball to come to him before trying to finish is not going to work this time around. He has to become a bigger part of the attack and help his team in any way possible, even if that is not by scoring goals.
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