FIFA World Cup 2018: Lionel Messi remains Club King | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 01, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:26 AM, July 01, 2018

Messi remains Club King

With hands on hips, eyes bleary and lips quivering, he looks on after losing another crunch match.

It's the same script from Brazil being replayed in Russia four years after. The other difference was that it was not the final against Germany but a round of 16 match against France last night. The margin of defeat was 0-1 then and 3-4 now.

But the fate is identical. The World Cup, tragically for Argentina, remains elusive for a player considered one of the greatest of all time. Lionel Messi failed once again to win what was required for being alongside Diego Maradona, the football god of his country.

Little Leo could have done it this time in his fourth World Cup appearance with help from a right coach and a suitable game plan. He could have emulated his country's legend by winning the Cup for Argentina, a feat that is needed for his critics to place him in the same bracket with Pele and Maradona.

Messi, who has won every possible glory for his club Barcelona, was expected to reproduce the magic Maradona produced in the 1986 World Cup. But not all stories end the way they should. The Messi story seems to end without a World Cup.

It was, however, the night for France. The score-line would not be able to completely reflect the French domination. It could have been 5-3, had not Antoine Griezmann's superb free-kick ricocheted off the crossbar.

Coach Didier Deschamps must be a happy man seeing his plan work for Messi and immensely gifted booters deliver the goods. The 19-year-old French striker Kylian Mbappe showed his worth by scoring twice, with Griezmann and defender Benjamin Pavard scoring one apiece. This France have the potential to go far.

Angel di Maria scored the best of the three Argentine goals -- a 31-yard beauty that kissed the net on the far post.

The match will be remembered as a harsh lesson for the Argentina coach of the future. Jorge Sampaoli refused to take lessons from his poor game plan in the tournament.

Sampaoli's strength was also his weakness. His opposite numbers successfully exploited his Messi strength as his Messi weakness. When a coach has a player like Messi at hand, it's only natural for him to let the team revolve around him. Argentina played all the matches centring on the five-time Fifa world player of the year.

So, strategy for Sampaoli's rivals was pretty simple: Neutralise Messi to neutralise Argentina. Luckily for Argentina, Messi is a player of unbelievable ability. With some mysterious sways, he, at times, could free himself from the defensive shackles placed around him to score or assist in group matches.

But it was not possible against France, who could implement their Messi plan perfectly. The two midfield generals N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba simply snapped the supply of passes to Messi by moving themselves up the yards.

The Argentine teams of 1986 and 1990 revolved around Maradona, almost identically. Carlos Bilardo lived up to his reputation in 1986 as one of the shrewdest coaches in the world, inspiring Argentina to their Cup glory.

Bilardo masterfully exploited opponents' over-attention on Maradona by dropping the legend down in the midfield and pushing midfielder Sergio Batista up a little as his shield. Maradona himself scored and, when he couldn't, he made Jorge Burruchaga and Jorge Valdano score.

We haven't seen Messi doing anything like that in either of the four World Cups he played. Messi & Co lost simply because Sampaoli was no Bilardo. Argentina needed a Bilardo.

Messi will be 35 when the next World Cup takes place in Qatar, so he still has a chance to convert himself from Club King to World King. But he certainly has lost his best chance in Russia. 


The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star

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