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29 Jun, 2019 17:31

Messi ‘is not having his best Copa America’ – but that might be a good thing for Argentina

Messi ‘is not having his best Copa America’ – but that might be a good thing for Argentina

Argentina set up a blockbuster Copa America semifinal against Brazil when they beat Venezuela on Friday night, but the man they had to thank was not captain Lionel Messi.

The Barcelona ace was largely anonymous as his team claimed a 2-0 win against the Venezuelans at the iconic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, with a first-half goal from Lautaro Martinez and a second strike 15 minutes from time from Giovani Lo Celso.

Inter Milan forward Martinez, 21, was the man-of-the-match as he excelled for Lionel Scaloni’s team, scoring his second of the tournament with a smart back-heeled finish from a Sergio Aguero shot on 10 minutes.

RT

Messi, 32, failed to offer much for his team as they nonetheless ground out another result to reach the last four.

That they have come this far seemed unlikely after a disastrous start to the tournament which left them with one point from their opening group games against Colombia and Paraguay.

READ MORE: 'Argentina are a joke': Messi salvages draw with Paraguay but Copa America hopes in the balance

While Messi scored from the penalty spot against Paraguay to help rescue a point in that game, it was his solitary strike so far at the tournament, where he has largely failed to live up to the substantial expectations on his shoulders.

Some commentators even joked after the Venezuela game that his biggest contribution was to sing the national anthem with unusual gusto prior to kick-off. 

Messi himself also admitted that he was finding it tough going in Brazil this summer.

"It's not been my best Copa America," he told reporters, adding a mitigating factor that “the pitches are not conducive to good football.”

RT

That is a running theme that others including Brazil coach Tite have mentioned during the CONMEBOL showpiece – but is not the sole explanation for Messi’s struggles.

The number 10 has largely appeared lifeless and devoid of ideas, as if he is still carrying the baggage of Barcelona’s Champions League defeat to Liverpool and shock Copa del Rey loss to Valencia at the end of last season.     

But while Messi has admittedly failed to spark into life, it might not be so fatal to his team’s chances.

Argentina are aiming to win their first major title since 1993, a painful period which has seen their World Cup final defeat to Germany in Brazil in 2014 and penalty shootout losses in the past two Copa America finals.

On all of those occasions, the pressure on Messi to perform has been relentless. He has been relied upon to drag his team to the final as the fulcrum of their attack and source of creative output, but once there, he has fizzled out. 

Too often, others have sat back and let him do all the work; too often Argentina managers have abdicated their role in favor of letting Leo decide what’s what.

During this tournament, the early signs were that things would again pan out that way. There was one viral image of the game against Paraguay which showed Messi alone, surrounded by opposition players and with barely a teammate in sight.

Also on rt.com ‘Where are his teammates?’ Messi’s Argentina woes summed up in one brilliant viral image

While obviously a distortion of the truth, it represented the general feeling that Messi would have to do it all on his own if Argentina were to get anywhere in Brazil this summer.

But slowly, the team have shown signs they are willing to fight even with their main man not firing on all cylinders.  

Inter youngster Martinez is the best embodiment of that with his impressive, energetic displays, while former Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder Leandro Paredes has shown more glimpses of what he is capable of.

RT

Messi is 32 years of age, and will not be around for much longer in an Argentina shirt; indeed, given his record of calling time on his international career after heartbreak in recent years, it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to quit again should La Albiceleste fall short in Brazil.

But for that not to happen, his teammates know that the onus is now as much on them as it is on him – especially as he is clearly far from his best.

Also on rt.com Whether it’s fair or not, Messi is forever stuck in Maradona’s shadow

Brazil in the semifinals will be a huge step up from what Argentina have faced, even without the injured Neymar.

The likes of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus all pose a big threat going forward, while they have the superb Alisson in goal and an experienced – if aging – backline including Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and Filipe Luis.

They will be widely fancied to beat Argentina, and will have the benefit of home support at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte.  

RT

But Tite’s team only edged past a resolute Paraguay on penalties in their quarterfinal, and can by no measure be seen as one of the classic Brazilian teams.

After Argentina beat Venezuela, Scaloni said that Messi was still “vital” to his team’s chances despite his subdued tournament so far.

"Messi is Messi. He's the best, above everyone else," Scaloni said.

He’s right: Messi is always capable of that moment of wonder, that mesmerizing dribble, waving that magical left foot to stick a free-kick into the top corner.

But he is not the kind of player who has ever looked at ease – or performed at his best –when the pressure was piled on with Argentina.  

Now with the expectations diminished by his performances at the Copa America so far, it might just encourage teammates to step up and ease the load.

And if that happens, the weight off Messi’s shoulders could free him up to do something special when it matters most.  

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