Although the Albiceleste captain is technically unemployed, he is not shirking his responsibilities as the team’s leader.
Since his death last November, Diego Maradona has been hailed as a type of secular proto-saint by bereaved supporters, with all manner of’miracles’ attributed to his divine intervention from above.
Diego’s tongue-in-cheek responsibility for the feat rarely goes unnoticed on social media, from close Boca Juniors victories to the arrival of the latest cargo of Covid-19 vaccines.
Quilmes, the brewing giant, even capitalized on the situation in a clever commercial for the Copa America, in which the late idol orchestrates a nail-biting win over Brazil in the final to seal the title and send fans into euphoria.
Now, as the Albiceleste prepare to face Ecuador in the competition’s knockout round on Saturday, such a result, with or without a celestial helping hand, does not seem so far-fetched.
And that shift in perception is only in part because to his on-field spiritual descendant, Lionel Messi, who celebrated his first goal in the 2021 edition with a celebration straight out of the Maradona archives.
Messi is key to Argentina’s prospects of beating the strong hosts, who advanced to the semi-finals with a hard-fought 1-0 win against Chile on Friday.
Leo is keeping himself busy driving Argentina to an unbeaten start to the Copa America. He may be temporarily unemployed at club level after his Barcelona contract expired midweek, but he is keeping himself busy driving Argentina to an unbeaten start to the Copa America.
The 34-year-old is the competition’s leading scorer with three goals and two assists, putting him personally involved in 70% of his country’s goals to date as they finished first in Group A, winning their final three games to easily qualify after being held by Chile in the tournament opener.
Argentina GFX Lionel Messi
Prior to their final group stage meeting – a 4-1 hammering of Bolivia with Messi putting in another brilliant performance – coach Lionel Scaloni informed reporters of Messi, who has played every minute of the Copa so far.
“The reality is that Messi has started every game and it’s difficult not to pick him because he makes the difference even when he’s tired.”
It’s no surprise to see Argentina’s biggest star step up, particularly in the group stages, where he consistently saves some of his best performances. A similar narrative unfolded during the 2014 World Cup and the subsequent Copas America, with output plummeting once the final stages began.
The difference this time is that for the first time, Messi’s teammates have been able to equal him on the field.
Emi Martinez, Cristian Romero (who is a doubt against Ecuador due to injury), and Nahuel Molina, who had a total of five caps between them going into the Copa and zero prior to 2021, have found the transition to international football effortless, providing much-needed steel at the back that has been sorely lacking.
Meanwhile, Scaloni has a lot of options further up the field. Due to their performances in Brazil, Tottenham’s Gio Lo Celso and Sevilla’s Alejandro Gomez have both made persuasive bids for inclusion, as have, to a lesser extent, Guido Rodriguez, Angel Di Maria, and Exequiel Palacios to put pressure on the coach’s early favorites.
Messi and Lautaro Martinez continue to gel in the final third, with Martinez breaking a bad run of luck in front of goal by scoring against Bolivia seconds after coming off the bench; while Sergio Aguero, despite still feeling the effects of almost an entire season without playing, is a luxury option to have in reserve should Argentina need a quick goal or two with time running out.
At the Copa, that group of players took the crucial first step by finishing first in their group and thus avoiding Brazil till a potential final. Still, they have a long way to go before they can even consider stepping onto the field at the Estadio Maracana in a week.
Ecuador has a poor Copa America record in recent years, but they must be regarded with caution, while the always-dangerous Colombia or Uruguay await the Albiceleste if they make it to the final four.
The Selecao, unbeaten in competitive football for three years and a team that seems to churn out wins virtually without stepping out of second gear thanks to their exceptional strength across the field, remains the largest obstacle to triumph.
It won’t be simple. Should the need arise, a little help from the stars wouldn’t go astray.
However, the pessimism that surrounded Argentina prior to and during the Copa has gradually given way to a more positive vibe, and with Messi leading a team that appears to be at ease together and growing in confidence, one might dare to dream that his long international trophy drought is coming to an end.