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article imageOp-Ed: Lionel Messi and Argentina face pressure to deliver in Brazil

By Tyrrell Meertins     Jun 9, 2014 in Sports
Lifting the World Cup in the Maracana would exceed Argentina’s previous triumphs on the international stage. It would surpass Diego Maradona’s world-renowned display in 1986, and Mario Kempes’ goals in 1978 would be a distant afterthought.
Claiming a third World title on Brazilian soil would be the ultimate feat.
Argentina, though, will have to erase the memories of recent misfortunes.
They were simply outclassed against Germany in South Africa –– overloaded in midfield, and ripped to shreds on the counter attack –– and under Sergio Batista they were utterly disappointing in the 2011 Copa America.
One of the few positives from Argentina’s last two international tournament appearances was Lionel Messi. The 26-year-old’s all-round performance in South Africa was impressive, and the only noticeable flaw was his inability to score. A year later, Batista’s intent to play Messi as a false nine failed; they only improved when Carlos Tevez was dropped, and Argentina transitioned into a 4-2-1-3.
Alejandro Sabella’s appointment following Argentina’s Copa America campaign left the manager with a crucial decision to make; would it be Messi or Tevez? Batista hinted that he was pressured to include the Juventus striker. Sabella, though, has rightly selected the tournament’s best player over a fan favourite in 2011, and the former has flourished for Argentina since.
The diminutive striker was joint top-scorer in World Cup qualifying with 10 goals, and Sabella’s decision to omit Tevez, ensures that Messi –– who dropped too deep due to the Juventus striker drifting into space that he prefers to occupy –– will be free to express himself in Brazil.
Banter regarding Messi’s need to win the World Cup has taken full flight.
Oddly, many cynics still doubt the Argentine’s ability to perform at a high-level without his Catalan contingent.
Messi remains the best player in the tournament, but his form under Gerardo Martino has been worrying. On current form, many have claimed that Cristiano Ronaldo has surpassed Messi, but the Argentine can redeem his merits and further showcase that Martino’s system was flawed.
Messi is still widely recognized as the best player of our generation –– arguably all-time –– and the Barcelona striker has downplayed the significance in cementing his legacy as the greatest player to play the sport.
"I do not want to be world champion with Argentina so that people can say that I will be a great like Pele or Maradona," Messi said. "I want to do it to achieve this objective with the national team, and to add this title to my list of trophies."
Eight players in the Copa America XI that lost to Uruguay will feature in Argentina’s opening match against Bosnia, with three personnel changes in the back-four; coincidentally, Argentina’s weak point.
While Argentina can punish teams when they dominate possession –– individual brilliance from the attackers and Messi’s ability to play the final ball –– their attacking strength lies on the counter-attack. They aim to launch quick breaks through Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano’s distribution, or Angel Di Maria shuttling into the opposition’s third.
Sabella’s side intends on exploiting the opposition in transition and placing their front three and Di Maria in positions to take on defenders in one-on-one situations.
Argentina, though, is susceptible to quick counter-attacks. Defensively, the Albiceleste are in a better shape than under Diego Maradona. Sabella’s attacking three lead the high-press from the front, and while they're accustomed to the temperatures in Brazil, they won’t press for 90 minutes. The issue is that Argentina defends with seven men, and against top-class opposition they can be exposed in wide areas if Sabella doesn’t alter his approach.
Di Maria and Gago push out wide to press the opposition full-backs, but they’re also responsible for protecting central areas with Mascherano. Argentina does possess a threat on the break, but some teams may gamble and attempt to overload wide areas.
"We are coming into the tournament in good form," Messi added. "We have a nice opportunity to do something big. We are relaxed and excited about being able to achieve our objective."
Argentina boasts arguably the best attack in the tournament with Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero upfront with Messi. Higuain provides an aerial threat in the box as he holds off centre-backs, Aguero aims to get behind the defence by playing on the last defender’s shoulders, while Messi’s role essentially sees him play a role that exemplifies the 26-year-old being three world-class players in one.
Starting from the right flank, Messi enjoys a free role in Argentina’s system.
Messi will drop near the halfway line to receive the ball, and he also drifts into pockets of space on the right side of the pitch. Messi runs at defenders from deep positions –– which sees Aguero drift from the right into central areas, while Angel Di Maria surges into the left channel –– and looks to play his teammates into key areas, while making runs into the box to finish moves off.
The Albiceleste possess adequate replacements on the bench in Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio. Palacio’s movement in the final third, willingness to play off the shoulder of the last defender and his reliable finishing is valuable. The former provides a legitimate counter-attacking threat on the left flank with his pace, offering Sabella a beneficial option of the bench.
Sabella’s midfield provides the perfect balance in central areas. Javier Mascherano is the tough tackler, Fernando Gago is the passer, while Di Maria offers dynamism. Gago –– who fell into anonymity following his spell at Real Madrid –– serves as a deep-lying playmaker that drops alongside Mascherano in the right channel. Gago is capable of retaining possession, but he attempts to play forward penetrating passes into the attackers –– between the lines or in a pocket of space –– while combining with Messi in deep areas. Benfica midfielder Enzo Perez can provide adequate cover in this role if Gago is unavailable, as he’s capable of dictating matches in midfield.
Di Maria, on the other hand, provides energy from the left and his fantastic season at Real Madrid –– following Carlo Ancelotti’s decision to align the European champions into a side that plays a 4-3-3 –– has seen the midfielder transform into Argentina’s most important player. Di Maria’s performance in the European final epitomized the threat he possesses from midfield. He stormed into advanced zones with his powerful runs, forcing Atletico players to commit desperate fouls in dangerous areas. The 26-year-old’s role is particularly important with his movement towards the left flank to provide width.
Although Argentina’s attacking six is formidable, the back four appears to be Sabella’s main concern. Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay are reliable, but Federico Fernandez and Marcos Rojo are limited defenders. Likewise, Sergio Romero’s peripheral role at Monaco has left many questioning is worth, despite his consistent play in goal at the international level. Sabella’s men have displayed their vulnerability against teams that play direct football. Without Garay, Argentina is susceptible against balls into the box, and teams will aim to exploit that weakness, along with Rojo’s poor one-on-one defending.
A nation will be at a stall over the next month as pressure to lift a third World title is at an all-time high. Argentina hasn’t come close to a final following their loss to West Germany in 1990; since then, progress past the quarterfinal stage has been an insurmountable task.
Argentina has waited 28 years for a player to match Maradona’s brilliance on this stage, and if there’s any man capable of doing so, it’s Messi.
Sabella’s side possess weaknesses in the back, but the Argentine manager fixed the issues within this talented squad, as they prepare to make a legitimate run in Brazil.
Perhaps it’s time for the Albiceleste to return to the top of international football.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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