Messi, Maradona and the Maracana
Wait. What happened to that whole business about not piling pressure on players by comparing them to greats of yesteryear?
Did Alejandro Sabella not get the memo? Or is his faith in Lionel Messi so immense that you can casually drop the D-word and draw parallels with you-know-who?
"Maradona was crucial, and Messi is too," Sabella said. He was answering a question about whether Messi could be as decisive as Diego was back in 1986, when he carried Argentina on his back and scaled the top of the world.
You don't usually get managers talking like this. Least of all folks who are usually described as soft-spoken men who -- like Sabella -- spent the best part of two decades as assistants before ascending, almost reluctantly, to the top job.
Managers are taught that it's about the team -- the one without the "I" in it -- and usually refuse to discuss individuals openly. When they do, it's usually buried in cliche and coachspeak. And then along comes Sabella and compares his star player to Diego Armando Maradona.
Not that many haven't done just that. One popular sign at a recent Argentina match proclaimed: "Francis is Pope, Messi is king, Maradona is God." (Even in this case, you had a clear hierarchy.)
It's just that you struggle to find a clear reason to put this sort of pressure on your star player, even when he happens to be the world's number one.
Unless Sabella knows something we don't.
And that "something" is Messi's character and that of the rest of the players. His shyness borders on the physically painful. But put him on the pitch and Messi has easily carried the crown for the past five years without showing any signs of it affecting him. Even the rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo, generally, doesn't seem to impact his performance. Perhaps Sabella knows that, rather than ratcheting up the pressure, his words will free Messi to do what he does.
Or maybe they're not intended for him. Maybe they're aimed at his supporting cast. The current team will be thoroughly familiar with that 1986 side -- the last Argentina team to win the World Cup. Assuming they have a sense of history -- or just know how to look something up on YouTube - they will know they are more talented than the '86 side.
It's not a knock on the old boys: if anything, it's a compliment. But how many of the Class of '86 would get into this side, even with "Kun" Aguero sidelined?
By my count, maybe Nery Pumpido, Oscar Ruggeri and, obviously, Maradona. Jorge Burruchaga and Sergio Batista might be close. You may disagree on the names and the numbers, but the point is perhaps Sabella was trying to poke the pride in his squad, challenging them to do more than ride Messi's coattails.
And, without question, they can do more. The Angel Di Maria and Marcos Rojo who turned up against Nigeria in the final group game were on a different plane from what we've seen earlier. Javier Mascherano, similarly, bossed the midfield in a way we hadn't seen in a while, possibly because -- at club level -- his mandate is purely destructive and the fancy passing is left to others.
The fact that the Super Eagles went for it, rather than clamming up -- as Switzerland may do in the round of 16 match -- no doubt helped them. It meant there was space for players to run into and in Fernando Gago there was a guy who could find them. Ezequiel Lavezzi's hard running helped stretch the opponents, which also contributed.
It was an improvement, but there is still a way to go, as evidenced by the fact that they needed a prime Messi performance -- not just the goals -- to best Nigeria.
Having already experimented with the 5-3-2 and 4-3-3, there are suggestions he may try out a 4-4-2 against the Swiss. This would mean dropping Lavezzi into midfield, with Di Maria on the other flank and Gago and Mascherano in the middle. Or, alternatively, a similar scheme, albeit with Maxi Rodriguez replacing Lavezzi.
The interchangeable, fluid front three is a nice idea, but he's simply not getting enough from the right, where Pablo Zabaleta is having a rough tournament. Two wingers, or so the thinking goes, would stretch the Swiss back four, thereby opening space for Messi and generating service for Gonzalo Higuain.
Despite his words, Sabella knows he can't ask or expect Messi to be the 1986 version of Maradona. Nor should he, frankly. Parts of this Argentina side continue to underperform, either because they're physically not right (Zabaleta, Higuain) or simply because they're overmatched (Fede Fernandez). But others (Ezequiel Garay, Sergio Romero, Rojo) are punching well above their weight and appear on the rise.
The key to lessen the Messi-dependency probably lies in midfield. We saw in the first half against Bosnia how this team shrivels up when Gago isn't on the pitch. He may not be fully fit. But, simply put, there is no other midfielder in this squad who can run the middle of the park and guarantee delivery to the front men. Without him, it's Messi or bust.
And while "Maradona or bust" worked wonders in 1986, as the fine print tells us, that's no guarantee that past performance will yield future results. If you can ride Messi all the way to the Maracana, up the Corcovado and the top of Christ the Redeemer's head, all the better. But it's not something you can - or should - plan on doing.
Sabella must be aware of this. Which is why his Messi-Maradona parallel wasn't just for the media's consumption or that of his resident superstar. It was directed at the other 22 in his squad.
Do they want to win this World Cup? Or do they want to be World Cup winners on Messi's coattails, like the Class of 1986?
It's time to step up and show the world that the little man is your best player, not your only one.