Argentina and Lionel Messi's World Cup rollercoaster can keep going
THE World Cup would not be the same without Argentina. They are, and always will be, the game’s great drama givers.
For as long as time can remember charting the progress of the south American giants has been an emotional rollercoaster.
My first memory of the famous La Albiceleste was the 1982 World Cup in Spain when they faced Italy in the second round group stages.
It was the time when the dark arts flourished and man-markers like Claudio Gentile put the fear of God in the opposition.
And he did just that to Diego Maradona – Argentina’s star player in ’82 – in the compact Sarria Stadium in Barcelona.
Maradona admitted years later he felt genuinely frightened by Gentile’s crude marking style.
Argentina were defending champions when they landed in Spain.
They had Maradona and Ramon Diaz – the latter regarded as Maradona’s equal during their youth international careers – and Mario Kempes who was the nation’s hero four years earlier.
Their chain-smoking manager Cesar Luis Menotti was still in charge, but back then teams and players aged with jaw-dropping swiftness between World Cups - unlike today when stars like Cristiano Ronaldo look stronger with each passing tournament.
Of course, the drama in Spain was mostly of the dark variety for Argentina.
Kempes had lost his mojo and the rest of his’78 comrades looked equally off the pace.
It’s in Argentina’s DNA not to do quiet exits.
Maradona sank his left boot into Sergio Batista’s midriff and was red-carded as the brilliant Brazilians outclassed Argentina 3-1 and sent their bitter rivals packing.
If the 1982 World Cup finals was a nightmare for Argentina, Mexico ’86 was fairytale stuff.
Maradona produced seven near-perfect performances to win the cup.
Argentina’s fortunes – and reputation - took another dramatic dip at Italia ’90.
The good living in Naples had clearly caught up with Maradona.
He was 40 per cent of the player he was in Mexico four years earlier, and yet he still managed to guide Argentina to the World Cup final, where they pulled, kicked, nipped and hauled at West Germany for 90 minutes before a late Andreas Brehme penalty sealed another European victory.
Four years later, in USA ’94, Argentina looked to have the tools to win another world title.
Maradona had whipped himself into shape again and looked closer to the form of ’86 than Italia ’90 – before he was banned for failing a drugs test after a couple of group games.
Despite the gallant efforts of the ever graceful Fernando Redondo, Diego Simeone’s tigerish midfield play and Ariel Ortega’s jinky runs, Argentina’s challenge ground to a halt in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl in a memorable encounter with Romania.
In the warm Marseilles sunshine, Dennis Bergkamp’s wonder goal sank Daniel Passerella’s Argentina in ’98 when they looked capable of mounting a serious challenge.
A Gabriel Batistuta-led Argentina crashed and burned in the Far East at the group stages four years later before the South Americans re-emerged in ’06 with an embarrassment of attacking riches.
It was Jose Pekerman’s job to marry Juan Riquelme, Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain into the same starting line-up – but he couldn’t manage it.
One of the worst managerial decisions in the history of the World Cup finals was Pekerman bizarre refusal to introduce Messi in Argentina’s ill-fated quarter-final against hosts Germany in Berlin.
Since the 2006 finals, a body of opinion insists Messi must win a World Cup to be classed as the greatest footballer of all-time.
This debate has always been too arbitrary, too churlish to be taken seriously.
Every World Cup-winning team has had structure about them.
For Messi, sadly, he’s played under a succession of managers that went to major tournaments without knowing their best team or most suitable system.
Pekerman was too hesitant, ultimately too conservative to deliver a World Cup in 2006.
Diego Maradona thought he could do what Franz Beckenbauer did by winning the World Cup as a player and as a manager – but the Germans wiped the floor with Argentina in South Africa, and another major finals passed Messi by.
Alejandro Sabella turned up in Brazil without knowing his best team or how to best deploy Messi.
After struggling past Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sabella tweaked and changed as he went along, making a once suspect defence into a hard-to-break-down unit.
Far from his best, Messi showed plenty of moments of his genius in Brazil – but couldn’t conjure a couple more that might have made the difference in the final against Germany.
Even though he’s won every club honour, football fans feel and share Messi’s anguish at World Cup finals.
Even on the Copa America stage Argentina couldn’t deliver a title that would perhaps liberate their footballers on a World Cup stage.
Jorge Sampaoli, who assembled a brilliant, high-pressing Chile side that performed so well at the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil and who denied Argentina in the Copa America final a year later, looked the perfect fit for Argentina and Messi.
Unlike previous Argentina managers, Sampaoli had a clear vision, an instructive way of playing on the international stage.
But he, too, has struggled in the hotseat at this World Cup.
He’s chopped and changed his line-ups, tweaked his tactics – but Argentina still don’t convince.
Messi, of course, is not beyond criticism just because of a faltering system, and he must rise to the challenge if Argentina are to progress at these finals.
The smart money will be on the under-performing French to progress at Argentina’s expense in Kazan tomorrow afternoon.
But Messi’s wonderful goal and highly charged win over Nigeria on Tuesday night might just ignite an Argentine rebirth in Russia.
To have any hope of progressing in the tournament it would appear Sampaoli has to restore Sergio Aguero to his attack and find a place for Juventus’s rising star Paolo Dybala who has inexplicably played so little at these finals.
Playing both Dybala and Messi might narrow Argentina’s attack, particularly when there is not a lot of attacking thrust from their full-back positions to add width.
Sampaoli has tried everything else at these finals.
Why not Dybala?
Why not roll the dice and attack the French?
Who knows, Messi's dream could still be alive after tomorrow.
One thing is certain: it won’t be boring.
This is Argentina: the game's great adrenaline junkies who keep on giving.