Lionel Messi showing some promising signs in a new Argentina role
Whenever the subject of the greatest player in the history of football is debated, the 47th minute of this year's World Cup final might figure highly in the argument. It was that minute when Lionel Messi dragged a left-footed shot wide of the far post, his best opportunity to win a tense, tight final, and put himself alongside Pele and Diego Maradona as World Cup winners.
Messi can, of course, still be considered the all-time greatest without a World Cup to his name, especially because in the modern age, the European Cup is played at a higher standard than the World Cup. To some, however, his lack of international honours remains crucial -- it's not an insurmountable barrier, but a significant caveat.
It's difficult to think of a grander stage than the World Cup final at the Maracana, but it's also worth remembering Messi's previous international tournament was a similar disappointment. The 2011 Copa America was held in his home country, and was a peculiar tournament where the big sides all underperformed. Argentina only reached the quarterfinal, where they were eliminated by 10-man Uruguay, the eventual winners, who themselves only shone in the final.
For Messi, a player who initially failed to capture the imagination of Argentines, having never played professional football at home, it was a huge setback. That was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win a major trophy in Argentina, barring a return late in his career -- probably to his boyhood club, Newell's Old Boys. Having failed in Argentina and Brazil, Messi must now look to Chile for glory in his home continent, ahead of next year's Copa America.
Argentina have undergone a significant change since the World Cup, with Gerardo Martino replacing Alejandro Sabella. Martino, of course, is a man who knows Messi well -- they were together last season at Barcelona, with rumours suggesting Messi had personally encouraged the club to appoint Martino, a native of Rosario who is, literally, a Newell's Old Boy.
Under Martino, Messi is playing a different role. In the 2011 Copa America, Argentina played Messi as the false nine in a 4-3-3, in an attempt to replicate the European Cup-winning Barcelona model. He played superbly, but those benefiting from his through-balls, particularly Ezequiel Lavezzi, kept missing the target.
At the World Cup, meanwhile, Messi became a classic No. 10 in a 4-4-1-1 system. He lacked the explosiveness of his peak and played a slower, calmer game, suggesting he wasn't 100 percent fit. Some of his through-balls were again excellent, though -- one pass to Angel Di Maria against Belgium was the ball of the tournament. Still, Argentina fell short.
For Wednesday's 2-1 friendly victory over Croatia in London, Messi played in his old right-sided position in a 4-3-3, drifting inside onto his left foot. With Angel Di Maria motoring forward from the left and Sergio Aguero upfront, it was a dynamic forward line, supported by a functional, workmanlike trio of Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega and Enzo Perez.
It's similar to the role Messi played in the build-up to the World Cup, although Sabella's system was more fluid, with Di Maria bombing forward from central midfield. Still, it feels strange to see him starting near the touchline rather than through the middle. Argentina's main tactic is often simply to feed Messi -- that's more difficult when he's less involved.
Nevertheless, Messi's performance at a half-empty Upton Park was extraordinary. Granted, he was effectively playing against a Croatia B side, with Niko Kovac resting stars ahead of the weekend qualifier against Italy, but Messi's mesmeric dribbling and his acceleration over short distances was spectacular.
It felt like a refreshed, liberated Messi -- in a different position but with the explosiveness and determination we've come to expect. At the World Cup he often held the ball, allowed defenders to recover their position and then turned back, but here he was direct, penetrative and always on the move.
That explosiveness is so crucial to Messi's game because his greatest, rarest quality is his ability to play two roles simultaneously. This is a player who popularized the false nine position while recording a goalscoring tally few classic nines in history could dream of -- he's a top-class creator and a top-class goalscorer.
To do both simultaneously, though, he needs acceleration, and Messi has an unerring ability to play a pass without breaking stride, then immediately charging into space while the opposition is looking to see where the pass has been played. That's why he initiates so many one-twos: a mixture of great anticipation skills and lightning speed over the first couple of yards.
Messi was superb Wednesday night. From the outset he was clearly up for the game -- creating an early chance for Banega following a burst of pace from the right. He linked well with the overlapping Pablo Zabaleta, should have won a first-half penalty when two defenders tackled him simultaneously after he'd played a one-two with Banega, and he created a couple of good opportunities for Aguero too. Shortly before half-time, he played another lovely one-two, this time with left-back Christian Ansaldi, before shooting into the side-netting.
In a meaningless friendly, many expected Messi to be substituted at half-time. Instead, he emerged from the second half with Argentina 1-0 down and produced some more wonderful moments, effectively creating both goals with wonderful passes. First, his 50-yard, driven crossfield ball to Ansaldi encouraged the left-back forward, and his shot hit Aguero and deflected in.
Shortly afterwards, Messi produced one of his classic low-speed through-balls for Aguero, who was fouled by goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic. Messi converted the penalty having missed his previous two. Maybe that was why he clenched both fists in celebration, a rare show of emotion for a penalty in a friendly, or maybe he's just determined to get Argentina winning ahead of next year's Copa.
More was to come: another great through-ball for Di Maria, then a right-footed shot against the post following good work from substitute Roberto Pereyra. The only concern was some sloppy interplay between Messi and Tevez, who received a hero's welcome from the West Ham supporters in the stadium -- reminiscent of the reception he gets back in Argentina, where he has a greater connection with the public than Messi.
It's tough to think of another attacker Messi has played with, at either club or international level, who he categorically doesn't work well with, but Tevez's return to the national side represents a genuine threat to Messi. There's no chance of Messi being dropped from the side, but at both World Cup 2010 and Copa America 2011 there was a feeling Argentina didn't play to his full capabilities because of the presence of Tevez.
Is it a coincidence that Messi's best form at international level, between 2011 and 2014, came when Tevez was in the international wilderness?
With or without Tevez, Messi must find a way to win the Copa America with Argentina next year. He would have preferred to win the 2011 Copa in Buenos Aires, or the 2014 World Cup in Rio, but July 4, 2015 in Santiago has become one of the most important dates in the remainder of Messi's career.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.