x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Still waiting for Messi

Argentina's star player has yet to score in this year's World Cup finals despite the team's impressive progress so far.

Lionel Messi's lack of goals is a surprise so far.
Lionel Messi's lack of goals is a surprise so far.

Some players get lucky with the timing of the World Cup. Others are less fortunate. The 2002 World Cup came a year too soon for Kaka, who made only a brief appearance as a substitute for Brazil. Lionel Messi was similarly considered too young in 2006 and was used sparingly by Argentina. "I was a substitute most of the time and it's not as easy to start in the middle of the game in the World Cup finals," he said. "The game already has its own rhythm, but I always try and adapt quickly to the tempo.

"I had a goal disallowed against Mexico. [Pablo] Aimar was offside. That was shame because we really needed a goal, but then Maxi Rodriguez scored an amazing one which put us through to the quarter-finals." Messi did not play in the following round, where a negative Argentina drew 1-1 with hosts Germany in Berlin before losing 4-2 on penalties. He was left on the bench after an injury to Leo Franco, the goalkeeper, forced coach Jose Pekerman to prematurely use all three substitutes. The two teams meet again at the quarter-final stage, with Cape Town's stunning stadium the venue today.

Just as the highest expectations surrounded Ronaldinho, his former Barcelona teammate, four years ago, the anticipation around Messi is at fever pitch this time. He has adorned more magazine covers, fronted more advertisements and been used as the lead star in the promotions for the new football boot he wears, ahead of Kaka, Steven Gerrard and David Villa. Watching adverts on Spanish television can be comic, as Messi sometimes pops up in three or four in succession, his clean-cut image attached to crisps, an airline and fast-food company.

No different from the ever-smiling Ronaldinho four years ago, but the Brazilian could not justify the hype and was accused of being sidetracked by outside commitments. He looked jaded and past his best when he should have been in his prime. He never again picked up his pre-World Cup form. Messi has a more sophisticated group of advisors, but negative murmurs have been heard about his less-than-spectacular form so far in South Africa.

Messi has not had a bad tournament, but so far he has never reproduced his scintillating Barca form for his country. Argentina play differently to Barca, who give Messi a free role which ranges from heading the attack to cutting in from either wing or playing deeper. This made him Spain's top scorer by a distance last season. His understanding with Maradona is not quite what he has with Pep Guardiola, his club coach.

Privately, his advisors have asked journalists not to make comparisons between the coaches, though that is more to do with image than playing style. Messi is into clean living and shuns the indulgences which notoriously curtailed Maradona's playing career. Argentines who claim that he is not as committed to his country as his club can be countered by one telling statistic - he was the only player to start or feature in all 18 qualifying games. He was not prolific, managing only four goals - albeit four more than he has scored so far in South Africa. The headlines are all about his goal "drought", but Messi has played in every minute of Argentina's games so far and has been far from ineffective. He has taken 23 shots, 13 of which were on target - more than any other player in the tournament. He encourages the excellent team spirit which made Argentina more adventurous and attacked-minded than four years ago.

Messi did not train with his teammates on Thursday as Argentina prepared for today's match against Germany, but alone in the gym. Argentina released no further information, knowing that whether the world's best player starts or not could influence German team selection. Messi's lack of goals is a surprise so far, but it matters little as long as his teammates continue to score. Gonzalo Higuain, currently the tournament's joint top striker, with four goals, is certainly grateful that Messi has turned provider, creating opportunities for those around him.