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Dublin: 0°C Friday 23 April 2021

Even Lionel Messi can't compensate for Argentina's flaws

The pressure is on the world’s best player after his side were held to a disappointing draw today.

Argentina's Lionel Messi appears dejected after the final whistle.
Argentina's Lionel Messi appears dejected after the final whistle.
Image: EMPICS Sport

ALL EYES WERE on Lionel Messi today, as Argentina took to the field against World Cup debutants Iceland.

In the end, it proved to be a disappointing afternoon for the Barcelona star and his team-mates, as Iceland held on for a deserved draw.

It was a day when little went right for Messi, who missed a penalty for the fourth time from his last seven attempts in all competitions.

A brilliant Sergio Aguero finish aside, Argentina struggled to break down a resilient Iceland outfit, who crowded the penalty area and forced their opponents to play a series of increasingly intricate but ultimately futile eye-of-the-needle passes in the final third.

The stats (per the BBC) tell part of the story. Argentina had 78% possession. They had 27 shots compared to eight for Iceland. Seven of those shots were on target in contrast with two for the underdogs.

Yet for all their possession, Argentina seldom looked capable of breaking Iceland down, though they were unlucky not to get a second penalty after a bizarre decision to ignore claims when Cristian Pavón was clearly taken down inside the area in the dying minutes.

One of Argentina’s problems — and not just for this tournament — has been their over-reliance on Messi.

There are times where you get the sense that the other players are almost waiting expectantly for their star to produce some customary magic. Their build-up play is too slow, as Jorge Sampaoli’s men failed to capitalise on the rare occasions when Iceland left space to exploit.

Messi, meanwhile, undoubtedly aware of the significant level of responsibility on his shoulders, sometimes tries to do too much on his own and ends up being less effective than he tends to be for Barcelona (though it should also be pointed out that he was impressive enough to win the Golden Ball for Argentina at the 2014 World Cup, so those who dismiss his international career have not been paying too much attention).

There was a sense of near-desperation to Messi’s play at times, as if he was trying to force it too much, while whenever he got the ball, he was invariably surrounded by at least two or three Iceland players.

Messi, who played 54 games for Barcelona this season (10 more than Ronaldo at Real Madrid), attempted seven shots today, but failed to find the net once.

Yet the Argentines are a far superior side with their main man. Others in the team simply do not contribute enough at times.

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Angel Di Maria was among the attacking players to disappoint, while his replacement off the bench, 22-year-old Pavón, did more in 15 minutes than he managed in 75.

While Messi is still most people’s choice as the world’s best player, without him, Argentina look very ordinary at times — a problem that was underlined in a pre-World Cup friendly in March, where they were hammered 6-1 by Spain.

That result, tallied with their distinctly unimpressive record in qualifying, where they won just seven out of 18 matches (losing to Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Bolivia in the process) makes you question whether they really warranted their status among the pre-tournament favourites.

They certainly failed to lay down a marker today against an Iceland side that had plenty of heart and tactical acumen, but nowhere near the quality that their opponents possess but sometimes struggle to utilise efficiently.

Despite Argentina’s dominance overall, they still managed to look highly suspect at the back, with Marcos Rojo particularly error-prone and sloppy with his passing. So while Iceland didn’t attack with any real frequency, they certainly posed a threat when they did.

Today’s result, of course, is by no means a fatal blow for Argentina. They still should be strong enough to come through a group that also includes Nigeria and Croatia.

But for them to win it, Messi will have to carry Argentina in a similar manner to the way Diego Maradona did during their 1986 triumph.

The side has multiple deficiencies elsewhere and while it would be a shame if the 30-year-old was to never lift the World Cup trophy, Argentina’s team is simply not good enough to legitimise claims that failure to do so damages his legacy unduly.

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Paul Fennessy

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