He’s probably the greatest player to ever play the game - but is his time at the top nearly done?
The 2018 World Cup feels like one of the most open in recent memory.
With preparations disrupted in numerous ways so far - from Spain sacking their manager on the eve of the tournament, holders Germany being currently without some of the most important men from their 2014 triumph, and France… well, they’re still France.
With all of this commotion, might the tournament provide an opportunity for individual talents to thrive in the absence of better-structured teams? Talents like Lionel Messi, perhaps, who’s looking to go one better after leading Argentina to the final in 2014.
Well, we’re here to tell you not to get ahead of yourselves. Here’s why you’d be a fool to pin all your hopes on one of the game’s greatest ever players pulling it out of the bag.
Read more: The Ultimate 2018 World Cup Quiz
1. There are too many players in the Argentina squad fighting to be the main man
Gonzalo Higuaín is going into the tournament with a €90m price tag on his head. Paulo Dybala outscored his compatriot for Juventus last season. Sergio Agüero has done it all domestically for Manchester City. None of the trio will be too happy catering solely to Messi’s demands, so Argentina face a challenge when it comes to finding an attacking partnership that properly clicks.
2. Jorge Sampaoli hasn’t clicked as manager
It’s easy to forget that Argentina almost didn’t qualify at all. When Ecuador took the lead in the final round of qualifiers, they were on their way out. Yes, it was a Messi hat-trick which helped them turn things around, but new coach Jorge Sampaoli hasn’t been the quick-fix some had hoped for. The former Chile boss won just one of four competitive games, while friendly results include a 4-2 reverse against Nigeria and a 6-1 humbling at the hands of Spain.
3. Midfield creativity is in short supply
Balance isn’t always essential for World Cup success, but Messi’s greatest moments at club level have come with the likes of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta supporting from deep. Ángel di Maria is still around for that blend of creativity and experience, but with Manuel Lanzini missing out through injury their other options are either very young or more defensive-minded, and an uncertain supply-line might make it easier for opponents to nullify Messi’s threat.
4. Ronaldo winning a major tournament brings added pressure
There are certain football fans who aren’t able to talk about Lionel Messi without bringing up Cristiano Ronaldo, or vice versa. Ronaldo now has a major international honour to add to his club glories, having won Euro 2016 with Portugal, but Messi is yet to win a World Cup or Copa América with his country. Could the pressure overwhelm him, as it has in the past?
5. The stress of the final chance
With Messi due to turn 31 during the tournament, this may be his final chance to win the World Cup trophy, and that in itself could prove problematic. Messi impressed two years ago at the Copa América Centenario, tearing it up in the groups and knockout rounds, but failed to score in the final and missed a penalty in the shootout. Could he crumble at the final stage once more?