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Lionel Messi carries too much of a burden for Argentina at World Cup 2014

Wednesday, July 02, 2014 by Telegraph.co.uk

Argentina continually looked to Lionel Messi against Switzerland and that deference is damaging them

Argentina have become overly reliant on Lionel Messi at the World Cup

This one can be filed under the Messi complex: the realisation that one player is so much better than his team-mates that it actually unbalances the side. Rather than being the sum of their parts they simply look to one element. Their deference is damaging them. Or maybe Argentina are just not that good.

There were two images that summed it up. In the first half Lionel Messi had the ball and there were four Switzerland defenders around not. Not one Argentine was in the frame. It was as if they were waiting for something to happen rather than help make it happen.

In the second half of injury-time, with two minutes to go, Messi had the ball again. Fabian Schaar lunged at him, Messi skipped away and as the pitch opened up there was panic. Terror. Three more Swiss defenders hurtled towards him, losing their shape, but Messi weighted the pass to Angel Di Maria, now free, and Argentina were in the quarter-finals.

Maybe one player is enough then. Argentina is the best nation to assess that given what Diego Maradona achieved in 1986 but even Messi struggled to dominate with this team and can he drag them all the way? Even so the parallels are there. Argentina were not great 28 years ago either as England can ruefully testify.

Inevitably Messi was named the Fifa man of the match - for that one moment - although the award appears obligatory right now, such is his mesmeric status.

Presumably coach Alejandro Sabella knew that Messi could only take one penalty - and not all five - as the tie headed for the shoot-out? The celebrations and sense of relief at the end betrayed the concern.

If Argentina were unbalanced by Messi then so were Switzerland who had worked so diligently, aggressively, determinedly to remain in this last-16 tie with Valon Behrami a figure of perpetual motion in midfield. Having kept their shape for so long it all collapsed in a single moment. That is what Argentina are depending on.

Behrami stayed close to Messi. Touch tight. So when he threw himself to the ground and it appeared that Messi may have pushed him replays showed the Argentinean striker did not react. Even when things are going wrong he remains contained and focused - although there were two flashes of frustration.

The first came as he gestured to referee Jonas Eriksson, waving an imaginary card, for Stephan Lichtsteiner to be booked. The second was at the end of normal time when he threw away Gokhan Inler’s arm as the Swiss captain tried to put it around him.

It is clear why Messi was frustrated. There has been a perception - and a fear among the Brazilian hosts - that Argentina are going to progress serenely to the World Cup final with a draw that has opened up for them.

But they could so easily have gone out. They could so easily have lost to Iran earlier in this World Cup. Switzerland had the best two opportunities in the first half. They were not rolled over and even after Di Maria scored they struck the post from point-blank range. The tie should have gone to penalties.

Argentina have the talent but not the cohesion; not the team. There is Gonzalo Higuain, who is struggling, there is Ezequiel Lavezzi, who is struggling, and there is Sergio Aguero, who is not fit. Behind them Di Maria was patchy at best, Javier Mascherano ineffective and alongside him Fernando Gago did not offer much.

Goalkeeper Sergio Romero is unconvincing and the centre of defence vulnerable. And yet they won. They are in the last eight. How much further can they go? It all depends on Messi. Or whether Argentina can ever get to grips with that Messi complex.

Sabella has argued that he has deliberately constructed the team around Messi - having also taken the decision to relieve Mascherano of the captaincy and award it to the forward to recognise more formally his importance - but it has become unhealthy.

Messi should be much further up the pitch. He was a withdrawn striker and was asked to be the play-maker as well. He was asked not just to pick the lock but turn the key.

Pushing him further from goal worked for Switzerland who were emboldened to be more violent in their challenges as they body-checked and doubled-up on him. When Messi waited and waited and then suddenly shifted the ball between Behrami and Ricardo Rodriguez the latter remained tenacious enough to get back at him.

The problem perpetuates. When Argentina struggle, Messi tries to take on more responsibility, take on more opponents - and his team becomes even more unsettled and shapeless. But in that corridor of uncertainty it is up to the others to respond.

Argentina have not been playing well. They won all three of their matches to top their group but those victories were all achieved by a single goal margin and the way the team is set up makes them even more dependent on individual brilliance and that means Messi.

“I don’t think the team depends on me, far from it,” Messi had said before this match. “We are a quality team, so I am only a part of this.” He was modest. And he was wrong.

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