MESSI STILL THE MAIN MAN IN DESERT CLA­SICO

▶ Ar­gen­tine leg­end des­per­ate for suc­cess with his coun­try as he faces Brazil’s teenage prodigy Rodrygo in block­buster show­down in Riyadh

The National - News - - SPORT FOOTBALL - IAN HAWKEY

Just be­fore Ar­gentina’s play­ers de­parted their brief train­ing camp in Mal­lorca, bound for Fri­day’s meet­ing with Brazil in Riyadh, they al­lo­cated in­di­vid­ual pub­lic du­ties. Fans wanted self­ies and au­to­graphs, the foot­ballers wanted to oblige, but in an orderly way. So they drew lots, demo­crat­i­cally.

All the mem­bers of the squad wrote their names on a piece of pa­per, a hand­ful to be drawn out to see who would go on pa­rade. But the sys­tem was weighted. Lionel Messi had four slips of pa­per with his name on, Ser­gio Aguero three, ac­knowl­edg­ing there is a climb­ing scale of star­dom and that peo­ple who want a photo to keep for­ever or a shirt signed tend to have the same favourites. It was a re­minder to Messi, that af­ter an en­forced four-month ab­sence from in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ments, more is de­manded of him than any­body else.

Mean­while, for Brazil, as­sem­bling and train­ing in Abu Dhabi ahead of the so-called ‘Desert Cla­sico’, there was a new, fresh clam­our. The player they pushed to the fore­ground, to re­veal a lit­tle of him­self to pub­lic and me­dia, was Rodrygo, un­capped. At 18, he is 14 years younger than Ar­gentina’s cap­tain, but has made a sen­sa­tional im­pact with Real Madrid this month. As he pre­pares for his Brazil de­but, he is en­ti­tled to pro­ject ahead, to a ca­reer that might take him to four, even five World Cups if he builds on his po­ten­tial.

Messi’s lat­est come­back is not from in­ter­na­tional re­tire­ment, as it was in 2016, when his coun­try shud­dered at his an­nounce­ment that play­ing for Ar­gentina had be­come more weary­ing than ful­fill­ing, and lob­bied to bring him back.

This last retreat was caused by sus­pen­sion, af­ter Messi, sent off in the third-place play-off at the Copa Amer­ica in July, an­grily ac­cused the South Amer­i­can Con­fed­er­a­tion of ‘cor­rup­tion’.

Brazil, the hosts, went on to win the tour­na­ment, and, once again, Messi spent a sum­mer dwelling on the fact that wher­ever he goes with Ar­gentina, he comes back with­out the medal he wants, some­thing to set next to his mul­ti­tude of tro­phies with Barcelona.

Not since a 21-year Messi won the Olympics with a pre­dom­i­nantly un­der-23 side has he won a ma­jor tour­na­ment with his coun­try, a sec­ond place at the 2014 World Cup and two Copa Amer­ica fi­nals lost on penal­ties the most tan­ta­lis­ing short­falls.

The plan for mak­ing amends for that now ap­proaches its end game. Messi turns 33 in June, 12 days into the next Copa Amer­ica, which Ar­gentina are co-host­ing. There will be many af­ter­noons there that Messi spends vol­un­teer­ing self­ies and au­to­graphs as he chases per­haps his last chance to be­come a South Amer­i­can cham­pion.

Then, in al­most ex­actly three years from now prob­a­bly the last Messi World Cup, in Qatar, kick offs. He will be 35, and if the player, Barcelona and Ar­gentina care­fully man­age his en­er­gies, he will bear­ing the same weighty ex­pec­ta­tions as he has for the last 14 years.

It is not a des­per­ado be­lief that per­suades his coun­try­men that Messi might still de­liver a World Cup for his coun­try, be­cause they have watched him grow into his thir­ties and still add new di­men­sions to his bril­liance.

If the pace of his runs fades, the ef­fec­tive­ness of his use of a dead-ball grows. If he cov­ers less ground in 90 min­utes that he once did, he has bet­ter mas­tered the art of when to pause to gain a yard on his marker. Messi is not im­mor­tal, but the statis­tics say there is no ev­i­dence yet of de­cline.

Messi was 18, like Real Madrid’s Rodrygo, when he was first picked for Ar­gentina – an in­aus­pi­cious de­but, as it turned out, with a red card af­ter 65 min­utes – and, like Rodrygo, he had been pro­pelled to his first cap af­ter only a hand­ful of se­nior games for his Span­ish club. Messi had played seven times for Barca when he made his made his Ar­gentina bow in 2005. Rodrygo, signed from San­tos this year, has played six matches for Madrid.

The dif­fer­ence is that Rodrygo scored a hat-trick in his first Cham­pi­ons League match at the Bern­abeu last week; Messi was fully 19 and three-quar­ters when he scored the first of his 52 ca­reer hat-tricks.

Rodrygo has al­ready had a €45m (Dh 180m) trans­fer fee paid for him, and prob­a­bly heard more com­par­isons, based largely on the club he plays for, with Cris­tiano Ron­aldo than the prodi­gious Messi had with Diego Maradona at the same age.

Next month, the Madrid won­der­boy and the Barcelona grand­mas­ter will con­front one another in a Span­ish su­per­cla­sico. Tonight, they should share a pitch for the first time, in the great­est of South Amer­ica’s du­els, the younger man won­der­ing if he might just be one of those whose photo and au­to­graph is in high de­mand come the next World Cup.

AFP

Ar­gentina for­ward Lionel Messi is back on in­ter­na­tional duty

AFP

Brazil’s Rodrygo the talk of the town af­ter his per­for­mance for Real Madrid

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