Focus is on Messi, but Higuain had a nightmare World Cup final.
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After his Argentina side were beaten 1-0 by Germany in last night’s World Cup final, Lionel Messi was inevitably the focus, as he failed to live up to the demands of the public that he “shows he can do it at a World Cup”. The FC Barcelona forward faced considerable skepticism after being awarded the Golden Ball for the best individual player at the tournament, but the scrutiny around everything Messi does has come about because the standards he has set over the last few years have been so high.
Messi, so often the star for his club, had been tasked with single-handedly delivering the biggest prize in football to his country, with the shadow of Diego Maradona forever hanging over his head when he pulls on the blue and white shirt. Still, while Maradona happened to work miracles at a select set of games in 1986 that would have been far more widely televised than those he played in La Liga or Serie A, Messi showed his human side – he wasn’t quite capable of lifting his largely average team-mates to new heights in 2014.
Moving away from Messi, as it is only fair to do, the focus should instead be on the likes of Gonzalo Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio, who squandered brilliant chances to win the game for the underdogs. Messi might not have had his best game, but it is still right to point out that these other big names, also including substitute Sergio Aguero, failed to register a shot on target in the entire 120 minutes. Given their reputations and achievements at club level, this too is inexcusable.
Messi, it is worth remembering, has scored four goals (plus one assist) at this World Cup, while the Argentina squad as a whole managed just seven between them. Higuain was the only other striker to score, netting just once in the quarter-final win over Belgium, while Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria and Sporting Lisbon defender Marcos Rojo managed just one each. It could almost be worth arguing that the pressure on Messi is even greater as Alejandro Sabella’s side set themselves up with a defensive mentality and the hope that their star man will bail them out, with even the squad’s other attacking players under-performing as their main role in the side is, presumably, to get the ball to Messi or at least make space for him.
Although they battled well against the Netherlands and Germany, the lack of balance in this Argentina side is all too evident, with no one in their ranks anywhere near capable of providing the kind of creativity and service for top strikers to thrive on. They don’t exactly have to be Xavi and Iniesta, but for all of Mascherano’s qualities, he and Lucas Biglia as a partnership is a very defensive-minded one. Fernando Gago in theory should offer a bit more creativity, but is a significant downgrade on Messi’s Barca colleagues. As a result, Messi often drops deeper when playing for his country, in a slightly confused tactical setup that doesn’t seem to benefit anyone, especially as it puts him even further from goalscoring positions.
Whatever Maradona achieved in the game may truly have been a one-off, but there’s no shame in Messi struggling in these circumstances, and the fact remains that his performances at club level are like nothing ever seen before.