How overburdened Messi bailed out lacklustre Argentina

Without Lionel Messi, Argentina would’ve missed the World Cup for the first time in 48 years. It’s as simple as that.

Just when his teammates looked to be out of ideas, Messi put three goals past Ecuador to lead his country to Russia.

Related: Messi the hero as Argentina avoids disaster to nab World Cup berth

Entering Tuesday’s finale, Argentina had fewer goals than basement-dweller Venezuela. Three different coaches tried and failed to find the right combinations. None of the 42 players who trotted onto the pitch, in a myriad of formations, seemed to click over 18 qualifiers. All the while, corruption charges against Argentina’s top football officials cast a massive cloud over the entire program.

But among all the variables was Messi. He was the difference.

Not that it was easy. From March 2015 to the present day, teams found ways to isolate the 31-year-old virtuoso. By suffocating Messi, opponents cut off Argentina’s lifeline. They didn’t have to worry about his teammates because they posed little or no threat, and very rarely would anyone offer Messi viable options. They’d give him the ball and watch idly, expecting something special to happen.

And then they wondered …read more