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For an excruciating five days, the world considered the unthinkable: a cup, its Cup, without its best player. It confronted the possibility with hysteria, engaged with the thought in astonishment, shunned it with disbelief. A World Cup without Lionel Messi and Argentina? Impossible, we whispered.
And alas, we were correct.
And only because of Messi’s greatness. Argentina’s defense sent the nation into frenzied panic by conceding in the first minute in Ecuador on Tuesday night. But Messi equalized, then won the game eight minutes later, and booked Argentina’s trip to Russia next summer by completing his hat trick in the second half.
He eased the worry. He turned the panic on its head. And suddenly, the past two years of toil and failure have been rendered meaningless.
Well, kind of. Not quite.
Because the Argentines, throughout qualifying, were dreadfully dull and impotent. They strolled out onto South American fields 18 times. They scored just 16 goals before Tuesday night. They trotted out 18 different starting 11s. They cycled through 42 players, seven strikers, countless other forwards and three managers.
They had over two years to figure it out. They never really did, and only just qualified.
Their attack stalled often without two or three of their four best players, Messi being one of them. The left-footed magician missed eight of eighteen games through injury and suspension. With him, Argentina was alright – good, even. Without him, Argentina was awful:
Messi has been hit with wave after wave of criticism for Argentina’s troubles throughout his international career. But Messi wasn’t, isn’t, and won’t be the problem.
The problem was, is and might be everybody else. Messi scored seven goals in his 10 games and set up what should have been many more. Somehow, only three other Albiceleste players tallied more than once. One of the three was Gabriel Mercado, a defensive-minded right back. Another was Lucas Pratto, a 29-year-old striker who has scored a grand total of one career goal in European leagues. Ramiro Funes Mori and Nicolas Otamendi found backs of nets more times between them than Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala combined.
And the manager. Managers, rather. They were problems too. Tata Martino started the campaign. Edgardo Bauza relieved him. Jorge Sampaoli was brought in as the closer. All three failed to devise a system to optimize the nation’s tremendous attacking talent. For the final two clashes with Peru and Ecuador, Sampaoli left Higuain at home. He left Dybala, Juventus’ attacking wizard, on the bench, saying there was “no time to work the Dybala-Messi relationship,” then handed Boca Juniors striker Dario Benedetto his first-ever Argentina start in what turned out to be an exasperating 0-0 draw.
The squad rotation has been inexplicable. Some of it was forced due to injury, and indeed, there can be structural flaws with too many dynamic attacking players in the same team. But the refusal to stick with world-class forwards like Higuain and Aguero was maddening. There is nothing wrong with starting domestic league stars over European-based household names; but there is when neither group is producing.
There are legitimate questions about Messi’s role in all this; about his presence forcing others to adjust their games, thus weakening their influence. But the bottom line is that they have not adapted well enough.
Actually, check that – the bottom line is that Argentina has qualified. And that means those players have eight months to adapt. Sampaoli has eight months to tinker.
They and he have the talent to be a World Cup contender, despite not looking like one throughout the grueling CONMEBOL circuit. Their journey to the 2014 World Cup final was not entirely smooth, nor was their qualifying campaign in 2010, nor Brazil’s in 2002. Those struggles didn’t seem to hinder that Selecão team. And would you really bet against Argentina following a similar arc?
Not with Messi, on perhaps his final international conquest, in search of the one massive prize that has so far eluded him.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.