The defining performance from Lionel Messi for Argentina came at just the right time with a brilliant hat-trick putting the Albiceleste in Russia 2018
“What I have always asked of Messi is what he did yesterday. If he really was the best player in the world, he had to save us and he did.”
Journalist Martín Liberman has long been one of Lionel Messi’s harshest critics on Argentinian television: The mouth-piece for a diminishing few, who are still not convinced by the Barcelona star’s greatness. However, Messi’s stunning hat-trick in Quito dragged a forlorn Albiceleste to next summer’s World Cup, forcing Liberman and many of his disciples to swallow their words.
Diego Maradona’s 1986 heroics, Pelé’s hat-trick of World Cups and even modern-day rival Cristiano Ronaldo lifting the European Championships with Portugal have all been used to beat Messi over a supposed failure on the biggest stage.
Without getting into the impossible task of making such historical comparisons, those critics seem to fixate on Argentina’s three final defeats, skipping the finer details of Messi’s individual displays over the years. Given the fine margins that seem to dictate this debate, Gonzalo Higuaín’s finishing or a little more luck from the penalty spot would have already confirmed the Barcelona star’s status as number one.
So while Tuesday’s performance against Ecuador won’t change that given it didn’t add another medal to Messi’s collection, it did inflict a near-mortal blow to the arguments that say Messi doesn’t show up for Argentina when it counts.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher in Quito, Argentina’s record in Ecuador could barely have been worse, neither could their form but with a place in Russia on the line, Messi stepped up in emphatic fashion.
For Barcelona there has been his El Clásico hat-trick in 2007, his four-goal demolition of Arsenal, his Champions League display against Real in 2011 and many more that have led to multiple titles but for the casual viewer, Messi hasn’t had that impact on Argentina.
The incredible hat-trick in Quito, his fourth treble for Argentina but first in World Cup qualifying, provided the naysayers with one of those moments, one in which his match winning influence was undeniable. It was Messi’s crowning glory for La Albiceleste at a time when the national team was at its lowest point in his career and where defeat could potentially have ended the cycle for Messi and so many of this generation.
The three goals took Argentina’s all-time leading scorer to 61 from 122 appearances, made him the top scorer in South American World Cup qualifiers, and ensures that he and Jorge Sampaoli’s squad will have another crack at the greatest prize in world football in Russia but Messi’s impact on qualification as a whole cannot be overlooked.
Argentina’s well documented struggles in front of goal, their lowest tally in the current format, was largely as a result of a disjointed midfield and a misfiring selection of strikers but Messi struck seven times in his ten appearances. When Argentina’s captain was on the pitch, La Albiceleste earned 21 of their 28-point total, in comparison to just seven during the eight he missed through suspension and injury.
While no other player has scored a competitive goal for Argentina in almost a year and the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, Mauro Icardi, Lucas Pratto, Lucas Alario and Darío Benedetto managed just three goals between them, Messi ended World Cup qualification with only fewer goals than Edinson Cavani, in a third fewer matches.
Regardless of the results in any particular game during a process of complete instability that saw two AFA presidents, a FIFA normalisation committee, three managers, five different home grounds, 42 players and not a single repeated starting eleven, there was one constant – Lionel Messi was the best player on the pitch.
“We had different coaches and it’s always difficult to start from scratch and adapt to a new philosophy,” Messi said after sealing qualification.
The team certainly found it tough and against such a backdrop, the fact that Argentina will be in Russia is an achievement in itself. One that can be attributed almost entirely to Messi.
During Argentina’s route to the World Cup final or the two subsequent Copa América finals, Messi was equally vital and in matches when La Albiceleste required inspiration or a piece of individual brilliance it was invariably their number ten. The difference on Tuesday was Messi got the fairytale ending; in Brazil, Chile and the USA, Argentina came up short and as such many want to write off all that preceded the final.
And herein lies the issue with those critics who essentially boil down their idea of the best player to one game. Does Geoff Hurst’s World Cup final hat-trick make him one of the greatest of all-time? Absolutely not. Does Lionel Messi’s ability to remain so utterly incredible for more than a decade, so influential in any side regardless of comings and goings, and so dependable even in a shambolic side, bolster his claim far more than a World Cup? It should.
And perhaps now people are starting to see that. Messi characteristically downplayed Tuesday night, saying: “We did what we had to do. It’s Argentina’s obligation to qualify every time. Now we have to get ready for the World Cup.”
There is a great deal to prepare and Argentina will not be among the favourites to lift the trophy but you can almost guarantee that Messi will perform.