Ar­gentina’s Messi qual­i­fi­ca­tion

IAN McFAR­LANE re­flects on how one of the world’s best teams al­most missed out on Russia 2018…

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - SOUTH AMERICA -

IN MY opin­ion, a catas­tro­phe was averted in the last round of South Amer­i­can World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion fix­tures. Ar­gentina were on the brink of not qual­i­fy­ing for the World Cup for the first time since 1970.

En­ter Lionel Messi with a stun­ning hat­trick in Ecuador, re­sult­ing in a 3-1 win, a third-place fin­ish and a berth at the fi­nals in Russia next sum­mer.

I don't know what it is, but since I can re­mem­ber the Ar­gen­tine na­tional team has al­ways fas­ci­nated me, watch­ing great play­ers who have pulled on the fa­mous jersey over the years.

I have a di­verse love of foot­ball so some names on this list may seem a lit­tle ob­scure to some, but the likes of Veron, Batis­tuta, Cre­spo, Tevez, Riquelme, Palermo, Po­chet­tino, Vi­vas, Heinze, Demiche­lis and, from yes­ter­year, the great Di Ste­fano, Kem­pes and Maradona have al­ways in­tensely held my in­ter­est.

This still rings true to the cur­rent squad. Aside from Messi, you also have Mascher­ano, Rojo, Roncaglia, Biglia, Mer­cado, Di Maria, Aguero, Gai­tan and Ber­nadetto to carry on the legacy.

De­spite the qual­ity of play­ers at their dis­posal, Ar­gentina strug­gled in the qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign, which be­gan in 2015.

Off pitch is­sues dur­ing this pe­riod were a hin­drance as well. In­deed, Messi even re­tired from in­ter­na­tional duty af­ter a sec­ond suc­ces­sive Copa Amer­ica fi­nal de­feat to Chile on penal­ties in sum­mer 2016 - luck­ily, he would change his mind shortly af­ter.

Man­age­rial turn­around was an­other is­sue, with Jorge Sam­paoli be­com­ing their fourth coach since the World Cup fi­nal in 2014.

There was also a player-im­posed me­dia ban, af­ter it was ru­moured that Eze­quiel Lavezzi had smoked mar­i­juana at a train­ing ses­sion.

Ar­gentina’s qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign didn’t get off to a good start – they be­gan with a de­feat (2-0 at home against Ecuador) and two draws (0-0 in Paraguay and 1-1 at home ver­sus Brazil).

They were up and run­ning with a 1-0 win in Colom­bia with Biglia on tar­get. This started a run of four con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries (they also beat Chile (a), Bo­livia (h) and Uruguay (h)).

This led peo­ple – in­clud­ing my­self – to be­lieve that, like Brazil, the shaky start was over with and it was now full steam ahead.

This was the case with Brazil, who fin­ished the cam­paign a whop­ping ten points above sec­ond-placed Uruguay and were the first to qual­ify for the World Cup.

Ar­gentina would, how­ever, con­tin­u­ally fal­ter - draws in Venezuela and Peru, los­ing at home to Paraguay and get­ting bat­tered 3-0 in Brazil.

Har­mony seemed to be re­stored af­ter that with a com­pre­hen­sive 3-0 vic­tory over Colom­bia, with Messi, Pratto and Di Maria all on the score­sheet.

A Messi penalty sank Chile, though the big­ger story of that game was the 30-yearold pick­ing up a four-match ban for his treat­ment of an of­fi­cial. This was ap­pealed and he only missed one game. The match he sat out was a 2-0 loss to Bo­livia at alti­tude.

Three draws would fol­low with just one goal scored, that be­ing an own goal by Feltscher in the 1-1 home draw against Venezuela.

The penul­ti­mate qual­i­fier in Buenos Aires against Peru fea­tured a ridicu­lous num­ber of missed chances. Ber­nadetto, Messi, Di Maria and oth­ers just could not breach Peru's re­sis­tance in a 0-0 draw.

Af­ter two years, it came down to a trip to Ecuador and noth­ing less than a win would real­is­ti­cally do.

With Brazil al­ready qual­i­fied, six sides still had a chance of the other three au­to­matic spots as well as the play-off spot for fin­ish­ing fifth go­ing into the fi­nal fix­tures.

Fear must have filled most Ar­gen­tini­ans when their side fell be­hind in the first minute. But Messi pulled out his stu­pen­dous hat-trick on a night in which he car­ried the hopes and dreams of a na­tion on his shoul­ders with con­sum­mate ease.

Messi's goals, link-up play and de­sire even­tu­ally helped Ar­gentina se­cure their place along­side the cream.

In the last World Cup in Brazil, Ar­gentina were beaten fi­nal­ists af­ter ex­tra-time against Ger­many.

Maybe from a strange psy­cho­log­i­cal viewpoint, this awk­ward qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign, with all the off-field shenani­gans, is what the na­tional side needed. Prov­ing they can cope with mount­ing ad­ver­sity and ex­pec­ta­tion is a good test of char­ac­ter for a side en­ter­ing the World Cup next sum­mer.

Is this go­ing to lead to a prag­matic-based Ar­gentina hold­ing aloft the fa­mous tro­phy? Only time will tell.

With Messi al­ready a true leg­end of the beau­ti­ful game and this pos­si­bly be­ing his last World Cup, it would be quite fit­ting if this did tran­spire.

Ian Mc Far­lane is Peter­bor­ough Uni ted' s cor­re­spon­dent on d3 d4 foot­ball.com

Star of the show: Ar­gentina tal­is­man Lionel Messi

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