Lionel Messi key as always for Argentina at World Cup

BUENOS AIRES (AP) — Aging but still one of the best players on the planet, Lionel Messi will lead Argentina in his fifth — and possibly — last World Cup.

And with him, Argentina certainly has a chance to win its third title.

“I don’t know whether we are big favorites or not, but I believe Argentina is always a favorite for its history, what it means and even more now for how we got here,” the 35-year-old Messi said in a recent interview.

Messi helped the South American country end its 28-year title drought when Argentina won the Copa America in 2021. It was Messi’s first major title for the national team.

The team has also set a national record by going unbeaten in 35 straight matches.

Argentina will play it’s opening match in Qatar in Group C against Saudi Arabia on Nov. 22. The team will face Mexico four days later and then take on Poland on Nov. 30.

THE ARCHITECT

Few believed Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni would succeed after he took over four years ago with little experience on the job. He had coached youth teams in Mallorca, where he lives, and was an assistant to Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla, and later at Argentina.

But under Scaloni, Argentina finally won a title again and, in June, broke its unbeaten streak record with a 3-0 win over European champion Italy at Wembley Stadium.

Scaloni brought in new talent, including goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, defender Cristian Romero and midfielders Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul. He also rallied Messi and veterans Nicolás Otamendi and Ángel Di María around him.

The 44-year-old coach broke away from the days of “Messi-dependence.” The team is solid on both ends of the field and hasn’t trailed in a match since the beginning of 2020.

“Today there’s no team dominating 70-80% of a match … There’s moments in which you have to fall back, work, feel that your are at a hard time,” Scaloni said. “The good thing about this team is that it knows how to suffer.”

THE STAR

Winning the World Cup remains the focus for Messi, and winning it this year would serve as a tribute to soccer great Diego Maradona, who died in 2020 at the age of 60.

“For a while I have enjoyed the national team. I had spectacular moments, but we did not win, we lost three finals in a row and the criticism began,” Messi said in a recent interview, in a reference to the losses in 2014 World Cup and 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals. “It was key to win something with the national team, otherwise I would be labelled by the losses in the finals.”

The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner will play alongside de Paul, Paredes and Giovanni Lo Celso — who earlier in their careers played in Messi’s position. That setting should free Messi from the responsibility of creating plays and put him closer to the penalty box.

Messi is the national team’s top scorer with 90 goals in 165 matches. He has scored 25 during Scaloni’s tenure.

DOUBTS

Some frequent starters have not been at their best, including de Paul at Atletico Madrid. Romero and Di María are often injured. Messi doesn’t play every match with Paris Saint-Germain, a change from his best days at Barcelona.

If Messi and Lautaro Martínez get injured or fail to produce on the field, Argentina has will have to rely on Di María, Paulo Dybala and Nicolás González for goals.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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