Messi’s Argentina have no excuses – but they also shouldn’t be too worried

Lionel Messi’s eldest son, Thiago, is obsessed with winning the World Cup for Argentina. So much so, he’s spent the last few months asking his dad question after question about the tournament. When does Argentina play? Who are they up against? What happens if they top the group or, heaven forbid, finish second.

“He is worried about it,” Messi confided to the Argentinian newspaper Ole.

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“The truth is, he puts a lot of pressure on me.” Winning the Copa America in Brazil at the Maracana in Brazil 18 months ago was supposed to relieve Messi of the burden. “It really reduces the tension,” he claimed as Argentina prepared for their World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia in Lusail. A 36-game unbeaten streak, the longest in Argentina’s history, did as well.

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For many people, Lionel Scaloni’s side were favorites in Qatar. Only the former defender didn’t see it that way. “We have no obligation to win the World Cup,” Scaloni insisted. “We’re wrong if we think so. We have to respect other teams. There can be as many as eight or ten national teams who win the World Cup, most of which are European. Favorites usually don’t win.”

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At home, the media wondered if this was a Cabulero a superstitious man who did not want to tempt fate. After all, Scaloni has been here before. He was part of the Argentina team that went to the 2002 World Cup on a long unbeaten run under Marcelo Bielsa. Sadly and to everyone’s surprise, they were eliminated in the group stage.

Messi looks confused as his side falters (Photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Scaloni is considering the dreaded repeat. “It’s a sad day,” he said in disbelief as Saudi Arabia came from behind to pull off one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Messi rushed away, almost incomprehensibly. He stared off into the distance and then at the sheep in his boots. He didn’t want his last World Cup to start like this, “my last chance to fulfill my dream, the dream we all aspire to”. The dream is now in jeopardy. “There are no excuses,” Messi grimaced.

Argentina cannot look at the linesman and the goals that Messi and Lautaro Martinez had ruled out for offside. They can only look at themselves. “We have to prove now that we are a real group,” Messi said. A group he compared favorably to Brazil’s 2014 World Cup finals. “Think positive” was La Nacion’s headline in the build-up to the game. Why not Argentina? But the atmosphere around the team had suffered badly during the pre-World Cup training camp in the United Arab Emirates. Nico Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa had to withdraw from the squad due to injury and Scaloni admitted they had a few “small problems”. The fitness of the influential rookie trio of players such as Cristiano Romero, Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria was a concern. Suspicion began to rise.

Still, you wouldn’t have noticed as much in the first half against Saudi Arabia. Messi’s early penalty was nerveless and the pace of the ball showed his balance and control. It happened so early in the game that his chance to score again and again and again to overtake Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time World Cup goalscorer didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. “Lionel has every chance to pass me,” Batigol said on the morning of the game. “And I hope he does.”

But the linesman’s flag (or rather the semi-automatic technique) teased Messi and his strike partner Lautaro. One goal after another was scored. Psychologically, it must have been a source of frustration. But Messi refused to take it in mitigation. “There are so many things being said about VAR; today it happened like that and that’s it, there are no excuses,” he said.

In the end, Messi conceded the ball to Saleh Al-Shehr’s equaliser, and Argentina went into a brief but critical state of shock afterwards. “It’s hard to take,” Scaloni tried to explain, “because in four minutes we conceded two goals, which were the only two goals per goal.” Argentina fans understood that the team needed them. They were strangely subdued during the game. The atmosphere was different from 2014 when they arrived in Rio and sang songs at the expense of Brazil. It was different from May’s Finalissima when they took over Wembley, banging their drums and jumping up and down from kick-off to full-time as the South American champions blew away Italy, the European champions.

Scaloni reflects on defeat (Photo: Hector Vivas – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

When Messi opened the scoring, it seemed that the fans were too used to it. When Al-Shehri equalised, the Saudi supporters could not believe it and sensed history. Lusail was beginning to feel like Riyadh. This is what home advantage in the Arab world feels like, and the Saudis took it into account, seizing on Argentina’s insecurities. Leandro Paredes’ cut save from the edge of his penalty area was celebrated as a goal. Nicolas Otamendi’s pass, designed to relieve pressure in his own area, only added to it, and when Salem Al-Dawsari curled the winner past Emi Martinez in the Argentina goal – Emiliano Martinez, the penalty shootout hero who stopped everything at the 2021 Copa America – it was Saudi Arabia’s momentum top. The game turned within five minutes, perhaps too soon for the 44-year-old Scaloni’s control to be questioned, although the triple substitution of Romero, Paredes and Di Maria that followed the Saudis’ second goal undoubtedly conveyed panic.

However, the end result should not cloud our judgment. Argentina created enough chances to get a point or more against Saudi Arabia, and while much has been made of Giovanni Lo Celso’s absence – the Villarreal midfielder was Argentina’s best contributor in qualifying and combines well with Messi – the lack of threat was not Argentina’s problem. problem. They won the xG battle 2.23 to 0.14. Let’s not forget Nico Tagliafico missed a point-blank opportunity and Abdulelah Al-Amri’s goal-line clearance made him a hero to his Saudi team-mates. It was a game of inches for Messi and Lautaro.

Scaloni and his players now have to drown out the noise around them. That’s easier said than done when Poland and Mexico are next. But history tells us that Argentina has gotten off on the wrong foot before. They were the holders when Cameroon and Francois Omam-Biyik shocked Diego Maradona and others in the opening game of Italia ’90 at the San Siro. That didn’t stop them from reaching the finals then. There is no need to lose to Saudi Arabia now either. “We have to keep going,” Scaloni said. At the age of 35, Messi has no other choice if he is going to fulfill his dream and the dream of his son Thiago.

(Photo by ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP via Getty Images)


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