World Cup 2018: Time for Messi to rise from the ruins
Lionel Messi has been here before. In this moment. The moment of reckoning in the blue-and-white jersey, a point in time that seems to come back to him an awful number of times. Sometimes, he succeeds like the true champion he is, at others, he misses a penalty and hangs up his boots.
Argentina might not even have been here had Lionel not netted a heroic hat-trick in their final World Cup qualifier against Ecuador in Quito. La Albicleste were truly down-and-out in an abrasive qualifying campaign before Messi pulled out his magic wand once again.
Yet, whatever he does as an international is never enough. He is always falling short, short of his own expectations and that of a legion of fans around the world; most notably in his home country, where he hasn't lived since teenage.
Different at club level
It is so different at Nou Camp for Messi where he is supported by a galaxy of stars including strike partner Luis Suarez, it is a place where success seems to follow him around. He has won the Ballon d'Or on five occasions, a feat achieved primarily based on his heroics at Barcelona. He has won everything as his childhood club, even a comparative period of lull in Europe in recent seasons can't dent his sterling collection of silverware at the club level. Things are completely different when he dons the blue-and-white jersey of his nation.
He had quit out of profound grief when upstaged by Chile in a penalty shootout in the Copa America final, a decision that he had termed had been taken on a whim. However, it was a decision borne on the shoulders of repeated failures for Argentina. He was in sublime form in the group stages of the 2014 edition scoring and creating at whim.
His assists spree continued in the knockout as Argentina, despite tangible weaknesses, reached the final. Only for Mario Gotze to break their hearts in a tight final held at the magical Maracana stadium. This final defeat was followed by two Copa final upsets and with his perennial rival for the GOAT status, Cristiano Ronaldo, lifting the Euro 2016 crown, the pressure on Messi, who has looked increasingly forlorn in internationals.
The heart of the matter
Argentina, despite having a veritable group of stars such as Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Sergio Aguero as forwards, are much too Messi-dependent. Messi thrives on his magical dribbling and one-twos, his range of passing and shooting is awe-inspiring but only gets into full bloom with the right support. It is not always possible for him to lift the side alone like he did in Quito, often, he is crowded out in a jungle of boots with nowhere to pass and no possibility of finding space to shoot. Often, the psychological pressure of this burden makes him perform below his best.
Tonight is the night
Arch-nemesis Ronaldo has had a dream start to the 2018 World Cup, having already netted four goals in majestic fashion, and is already on course to win the Golden Boot crown. Argentina and Messi, on the other hand, have been placed in a tricky group and, having dropped points against the plucky Iceland side in another frustrating match for Messi (where he also missed a penalty), victory against the skilful Croatians tonight, is essential.
Croatia are formidable rivals with their own resident magician Luka Modric pulling the strings in midfield, ably propped up by a supporting cast that includes Messi's clubmate Ivan Rakitic.
It is also essential for Messi to pull out another trick from his bag at the greatest show on Earth. It is another moment of reckoning, something that he has become familiar with, yet the pressure of that moment doesn't decrease because of familiarity. For once, his illustrious teammates need to come to the party too. The world and his fans will be waiting for their GOAT to rise out of the ruins of past failures, can he do it?