Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Lionel Messi back again for Argentina for one final crack at winning the Copa America

The Barcelona forward continues to take us by surprise with his goal-scoring exploits, but as preparations step up for an assault on the Copa America in Brazil, can he transfer those skills to the national team?

So often does Lionel Messi make the impossible seem routine it is harder and harder for him to take us by surprise. Another day, another hat-trick. Another man-marking job assigned to him, another dazzling set of manoeuvres to slip free of his shackles. Another year, and almost certainly, another club title, with this season likely to deliver his 10th Spanish championship.

But this week, there have been series of genuine Messi firsts. Start with the reaction to Sunday’s hat-trick at Real Betis, a trio of goals that were deft, exquisite and precise and took Barcelona’s Messi to pole position in the rankings for the 2018/19 Golden Shoe, the award for the most prolific goalscorer in European league football.

The novelty was in what the Betis crowd did. Messi got an ovation from all around a fiercely loyal, passionate away ground. “I can’t remember being cheered by a rival before,” Messi noted of the Betis fans’ appreciation of his masterly performance. “I’m really grateful.”

The next day he would be grateful to the hospitality of Real Madrid - another unusual state of affairs for Barcelona’s emblematic star. Madrid have lent the Argentina national team their training site this week, ahead of Friday’s friendly with Venezuela in the Spanish capital. So here was another novelty: Messi in practice at Valdebebas, Real’s HQ, where so many hours of strategising have been devoted over the years on how to combat him.

On Friday he will be cheered by most of the Wanda Metropolitano arena, which will sound a little unusual, it being the home of Atletico Madrid, the nearest chasers - albeit at 10 points behind - of Barcelona in La Liga. Thousands of expatriate Argentines will be there to witness a moment that at times in the last seven months they feared they may never see again.

Messi has not played for his country since the World Cup, another deflating episode among the many that pepper his 14-year career with Argentina, a period without a senior international trophy to place alongside his 30-odd club prizes with Barcelona. In three months, Messi will take on his fifth Copa America, during which he will turn 32, and he knows every game will bring with it compatriots' anxious expectations around how close Argentina’s version of Messi will resemble the Messi they watch on television as Barcelona’s peerless genius, and that, if the resemblance is not close enough, the reaction will be sour.

After the last Copa America, and a second successive Argentina defeat on penalties to Chile in the final, Messi talked of retiring from international football. After the World Cup, and defeat in the last-16 against France and a campaign that featured only one win in four games, he kept his counsel but quietly indicated he needed some time off.

For this, his comeback, his 129th cap, he will be taking orders from the ninth different head coach of his often vexed career in blue and white stripes. Lionel Scaloni, who took over as caretaker when Jorge Sampaoli stood down after a chaotic World Cup, naturally regards Messi as his centrepiece, and at the moment, has chosen to ally him not with the attacking partners he has come to know best, but with fresher faces.

There is no Sergio Aguero - “it would be counter-productive to call him up if he’s not going to play,” explained Scaloni, “I want to have a look at alternatives” - and no call-up for Gonzalo Higuain, while Javier Mascherano, Messi’s old ally and long-time dressing-room general in the national team has retired from Argentina service.

Much weight, then on the shoulders of the greatest footballer South America has produced this century, the one running out of time to drape an international medal around his neck.

Updated: March 21, 2019 01:09 PM

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