Messi's biggest obstacle at the World Cup might just be his Argentinian teammates

Immediately, the magnitude of the task facing Lionel Messi came conveniently and acutely into view. He stood, upright and proud, for the Argentinian national anthem ahead of its first pre-World Cup tuneup friendly against Haiti in Buenos Aires on Tuesday, a 4-0 rout for the home team.

The camera, as usual, lingered on him as it slowly panned the rest of the Albiceleste. And as it framed soccer’s little supernova, it couldn’t help but capture the tall, bald man to his right in the frame. No avoiding it. Because Willy Caballero, that man, is a good half-foot taller than Messi is. And with the lights caroming off his shiny dome, he’s hard to miss.

The challenge for Messi at the World Cup in Russia is, essentially, men like Caballero.

In a macro sense, there’s nothing wrong with Caballero per se. He’s an admirable man who has risen to the top of his profession. Spending the past few seasons with Manchester City and Chelsea of the Premier League puts him in the one percent of the one percent of the world’s goalkeepers. Yet in Messi’s quest to finally win a World Cup, after falling short in extra time of the final against Germany four years ago, a Willy Caballero just won’t do.

Two seasons ago, he started 26 games for City after manager Pep Guardiola finally gave up on Joe Hart. Last season, at Chelsea, he played in 13 more games. Not bad for a backup, which is what he has been since leaving Malaga in 2014. But Caballero is hardly in the rarefied atmosphere of goalkeepers. He is nowhere near the half-dozen or so best in the world at his position.

You don’t strictly need one of those to win the World Cup. Although Germany had one and Spain had one in 2010 and Italy had one in 2006. But it helps. And Messi needs all the help he can get.

Sure, he has Gonzalo Higuain, one of the world’s top strikers, even though he’s never shaken a penchant of missing the most important chances of all. And he has Sergio Aguero, who remains one of the world’s deadliest forwards, yet has never quite meshed with Messi on the national team. Paolo Dybala offers creativity, even though he wasn’t as influential at Juventus this past season in spite of scoring more goals than ever.

There’s lots of experience in the squad with holding midfielder Javier Mascherano and winger Angel Di Maria, who combine for 235 caps and 25 years on the national team. There are some capable playmakers and some threatening wingers. Manager Jorge Sampaoli might even cobble together a passable defense from the driftwood and spare parts he’s collected.

And Caballero will probably do okay. Even though he’s 36 and played in just his third cap against Tuesday. Starting goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who has held the job for the last decade, is injured.

But that’s the issue with this team. Messi excepted, they’re all mostly just … fine.


Almost nobody in this side is at the peak of his prime. And, sure, the spine of this team played in consecutive finals in the World Cup and two Copa Americas in three straight summers from 2014 through 2016, losing all of them in extra time or on penalties. A team’s peak, however, can slip away from one summer to the next — let alone two of them. There are, at present, no difference makers in the lineup besides Messi. Only Dybala perhaps might alter a game on his own, should he suddenly recapture his best form, but then he seldom starts as he tends to get in Messi’s way.

Which means Messi will pretty much have to do it all himself. And there’s obvious danger in such a scheme. It’s the same one that backfired for FC Barcelona this season, when it stranded in the quarterfinal of the Champions League for a third straight year when Messi had a not-entirely-stellar series against AS Roma. Absent an attacking alternative for Messi, with Neymar sold to Paris Saint-Germain in spite of the club’s ardent resistance, it was prone on the Argentine’s rare sub-par days.

Winning the World Cup means navigating a high-stakes, three-game group stage and then surviving four straight knockout games. It requires a huge amount of luck. But most of all, it takes a handful of players who can put the team on their back when the other stars aren’t up to it. You don’t dominate every day. That’s the nature of soccer. You dribbles don’t come off sometimes, and your shots will refuse to find the target in certain games.

On Tuesday, against a fairly fetid opponent with no attacking ambitions whatsoever, it all worked. Messi made dicing runs and dispatched atom-splitting passes, scored a hat-trick, and got an assist.

After Giovani Lo Celso was flattened by Ricardo Ade in the Haitian box in the first half, Messi converted the penalty.

In the second act, he swept home the rebound from Lo Celso’s header on Higuain’s cross, which was parried by goalkeeper Johnny Placide.

Christian Pavon wormed his way through the back line and cut back to Messi, who beat Placide a third time.

And then Messi set up Aguero for a fourth with a perfect through ball.

When Messi is at his best, it all works well. But when he isn’t quite his transcendent self, his team can find itself searching feverishly for answers only he can provide. Remember Argentina’s epic struggle during World Cup qualifying, when Messi blew hot and cold?

Argentina will live by Messi or die by Messi. Which means, statistically, that its chances of survival all the way to the cup are slim.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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