This article assesses Lionel Messi’s performance for Argentina against Bolivia as the Albiceleste travelled to La Paz for a CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier on Wednesday afternoon. Alejando Sabella’s men laboured to a 1-1 draw at the altitude of the Estadio Hernando Siles, but while Bolivia are all but out of the running for qualification, Argentina remain in pole position in the South American group.
Lionel Messi could only deliver a disappointing performance, and struggled along with his teammates. The Barcelona star had one of his poorer games, failing to influence proceedings and missing a glorious chance late on.
This was a far cry from the dominant display he delivered against Venezuela on Friday evening. At the Estadio Monumental, the nation’s No. 10 inspired his side to victory with a dazzling showing which earned him delirious plaudits from the fans in attendance.
My colleague Christopher Atkins suggested recently that the days of Messi not performing to his full capacity for Argentina were over, but on the evidence on Wednesday’s outing, the superstar hasn’t quite overcome this long-standing issue.
While Messi was devastatingly effective and wonderously innovative against Venezuela, he struggled to inspire his charges in La Paz, and trudged off at the end of the contest ruing an opportunity missed.
Clearly, there are factors which affected Messi’s performance, and which must be considered in any article grading his contribution. One of these was referred to by the player himself pre-match, and is a common problem for any foreigner attempting 90 minutes of sporting competition in La Paz: the altitude.
Standing at 11,932 feet above sea level, the Estadio Hernando Siles is one of the highest professional stadiums in world football. Along with Ecuador’s Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa in Quito, it is one of South America’s most ominous fortresses, the thinning air a bane for away teams.
Messi was well aware of this issue before the contest, having been part of several Argentine teams to have struggled in La Paz over the years. He was present in 2009 when Bolivia secured a devastating 6-1 victory over the Albiceleste, and was fully aware of the difficulties of playing at such a height.
The altitude evidently affected the two-time World Cup winners as they appeared leggy and out of sorts, the thinned air clearly having a negative effect on their respiration and rhythm. Angel di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi both needed the aid of an oxygen mask, while Messi was particularly troubled by the taxing conditions. At one point he was caught on camera vomiting, having overexerted himself.
This kind of upheaval and change in conditions had a marked impact on this highly-trained, ultra-professional sportsman—and was a key reason why the Barcelona star was unable to recreate the magic of his recent showing against Venezuela.
A second reason that begins to explain Messi’s underwhelming showing might have been the nature and approach of the Bolivians, who have emerged as a bit of a bogey side for Argentina in recent times. Tuesday’s performance was the third consecutive draw between the two sides, a stat which suggests that La Verde may be particularly effective at stifling and thwarting the Argentines.
Their earlier qualifying clash, in Buenos Aires, was a prime example. The home side endured a frustrating first half before Bolivia took the lead soon after the break. Argentina only secured a point through a Lavezzi equaliser, while Messi was once again ineffective.
These recent showings suggest that even away from La Paz, Bolivia have the capacity to cause Argentina problems and negate their considerable attacking threat.
The two aforementioned factors still don’t totally explain, or even excuse, Messi’s underwhelming display. Crucially, the skipper had a chance to wrap things up late on, but failed to find the net and beat the impressive Sergio Galarza in the Bolivian goal. After nicking the ball from a defender, Messi found himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Some uncharacteristic hesitation eventually cost him, allowing the stopper to block the finish.
It should be noted that the Barcelona man provided a crucial contribution for Argentina’s sole goal; some delightful footwork beat two men before an intelligent lay-off found Clemente Rodriguez, whose cross was met by Ever Banega. The troubled Valencia midfielder headed home past Galarza to draw the Albiceleste level.
Messi’s arrival in La Paz drew a fervent reaction from the locals, clearly aware of the forward’s imperious qualities and keen to catch a glimpse of the superstar’s arrival in their city. The Bolivian federation revealed that the gate receipts taken for this contest were a record for the nation’s soccer—although the box office crowd will perhaps have been left feeling a little nonplussed by the Barca man’s showing.
This reception demonstrates the standing Messi currently enjoys within the world game. Despite still being only 25, the player is a legend within the international footballing community. His arrival in Bolivia brought excitable natives not only flocking to the stadium, but also to the airport and to the team hotel—purely with the intention of spotting the South American wonder.
This anticipation adds to the disappointment of his showing, and it ought to be noted that such levels of expectation accompany only the most excellent of players. The carousel of eagerness that follows Messi wherever he plays only serves to magnify any relative failures such as this.
Despite this disappointing draw, Argentina still remain at the top of the South American qualifying table and are closing in on qualification. Currently sitting on 24 points, with a nine point cushion protecting them from the ominous playoff spot, the Albiceleste look to be favourites to make their 11th consecutive World Cup.
Surely the potential of a tournament triumph, their first since Maradona’s inspirational performance in 1986, made all the sweeter by being on Brazilian ground, will be playing on the minds of Messi and Co. While there is time to improve as a unit, a performance such as this does little to suggest that Sabella’s men will be pulling up any trees come next summer.
Overall Rating: C-
Despite travelling to La Paz on the back of a dominant victory, Argentina as a collective were unable to break their hosts down effectively, and laboured in the high altitude conditions. Messi failed to rise above the mediocrity of his colleagues, and, unlike in his dazzling performance against Venezuela, was almost impotent in improving the fortunes of his compatriots.
The aforementioned caveats must be considered, but despite this, the playmaker struggled to come close to his own high standards. The harsh grade represents the fact that such a peripheral, hesitant performance is far below what we have come to expect from the world’s finest.
With 51 goals this season for Barcelona, Messi currently stands only two goals behind Argentine legend Diego Maradona in the nation’s all-time goalscorer charts. The clever money would be on him leading the Albiceleste to Brazil with this title already secured.