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▶ Messi’s Lima show justifies Ortega acclaim [2023/10/28   ]

There was a strange, even unjust, feeling about Argentina’s victory over Paraguay at the Estadio Monumentall in Round 3 of the South American qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 26™. Lionel Scaloni's side played so well with Lionel Messi on the bench that, when the Inter Miami player entered the fray in the second half and looked a little off the pace – he joined the squad with muscular problems that had sidelined him for several weeks – there was considerable self-congratulation at how well they had performed without their talisman.

It is not as if anyone really thinks that Messi should be a substitute or that, at the age of 36, he should be thinking about retirement. It has to do, by contrast, with Argentina's ambition to plan for a time when their famous No10 is no longer around.

In this respect, all the signs from Scaloni’s side thus far in these qualifiers have only stoked optimism about the future. This is partly down to the quality and quantity of players, but mostly due to the way in which its footballing philosophy is shaped, through dominating play, good ball control, forcefulness when out of possession, and being positioned as far up the field as possible.

In the press conference prior to Tuesday’s meeting with Peru in Round 4, several journalists probed Scaloni about the prospect of an Argentina without Messi. “Why think about when Messi is gone?” the coach responded bluntly.

“He’s still active, so let's leave him alone. We have an impressive ability to self-sabotage. It seems we’re retiring him already. Are we all crazy?

“The team plays a very specific way no matter who is on the pitch. That's the most important thing. We saw the other day that this is possible. We'd like Messi to be there for the good of football, but when he isn’t, then we have to make up for that with a clear philosophy.”

In having a coach who understands him and always seems to be on the same page, Messi, with his performance against Peru, seemed to lend credence to comments by another famous Argentina No10, Ariel Ortega, that ’La Pulga Atomica’ could play for as long he wanted, even “one or two more World Cups”.

At 36 years of age, Messi is still proving to be physically flawless, despite the muscular pains of recent weeks. Furthermore, despite no longer playing in Europe, his pace is still there. More importantly though, his brace against Peru made him the all-time top scorer in CONMEBOL qualifying for the World Cup (31 goals), providing further evidence of a seemingly endless ability to deliver. His exquisite finishing on Tuesday, which he made look simple with left-footed strikes that appeared natural and harmonious, is something very few players can match.

Messi’s two touches just inside the Peruvian box gave goalkeeper Pedro Gallese no chance and secured the victory. And nor should we be surprised. Among the many sides of Messi in his vast repertoire, there is the finisher, in which he is arguably the most lethal and exquisite in the world.

Which is not to say that this is the only facet he has count on these days – just that it was the one that impressed most on this occasion. In other games, it’s Messi the orchestrator, directing the play and threading wonderful assists. Then there is his lethal skill from set-pieces, his ability to shake off opponents in tight spaces, now more with craft and dexterity than the raw power with which he used to leave opponents for dead.

The Argentinian icon has said he will not take part in the World Cup 26, something Scaloni knows very well and is willing to accommodate. For now, it’s about enjoying the moment.

“This team is impressive and getting better and better,” Messi told TyC Sports after the match. “Comparing it to Barcelona, which was the best in history, is a lot, but it's very close as it keeps improving, which is very commendable.

“The team always try to dominate play. We always want the ball and we feel really good. This is a great group that’s enjoying itself."

In that context, the ticking clock on Messi’s playing days seems to be stopped – at least for now. And as Ortega rightly pointed out, the many options still available to him are those of a seemingly perpetual player.

- The origianl text resource is from Yahoo Sports

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