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Messi-less: Why Argentina struggles due to superstar’s absence

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring against Uruguay during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Mendoza, Argentina, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. (AP)

Lionel Messi’s retirement from international football may have - at 47 days - lasted 20 days fewer than the reign of the last England manager, but a glimpse of an Argentina shorn of Messi’s magic has been witnessed nonetheless. And, for La Albiceleste, it has made for worrying viewing.

Ahead of their 2018 World Cup qualifier against Paraguay in Cordoba tonight (20.30 local time / 03.30 in Dubai), Argentina’s new manager Edgardo Bauza knows he must find a way to win without the help of an injured five-time Ballon d’Or winner. Despite also having the likes of Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel de María in the ranks, both former coach Tata Martino and Bauza have struggled to solve the conundrum of how to win without Messi.

The impact of the country’s captain is immeasurable. Since Messi made his international debut in 2005, Argentina have reached three Copa América finals, beaten the likes of Uruguay, Belgium and the Netherlands, and finished runner-up at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Yet with injuries forcing him to sit out six of his country’s nine 2018 World Cup qualifiers so far, the South Americans go into tonight’s match fifth in a 10-nation group and knowing they will need to make history if they are to qualify for the tournament in Russia.

Last year and without Messi, Argentina picked up just two points from their opening three qualifiers; a shock home defeat to Ecuador being followed by draws with Paraguay and Brazil. Never in the current Conmebol system has a country managed so few points after three games and recovered to qualify for the tournament proper.

However never before in the current Conmebol system has a country had a player of the talents of Messi. He was back fit in time for Argentina’s next pair of qualifiers last March, when against Chile, he assisted the winning goal in a 2-1 victory and against Bolivia scored in a 2-0 win. Little wonder that, when the 29-year-old announced his retirement three months later after the penalty shoot-out heartbreak of the Copa América final, fans took to the streets to show their support. Even the Argentine president, Mauricio Macri, pleaded for the player to reconsider.

Argentina's Lionel Messi, left, vies for the ball with Uruguay's Nicolas Lodeiro during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Mendoza, Argentina, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. (AP)

And reconsider he did. An August meeting with Bauza in Barcelona led to Messi agreeing to return for the following month’s crucial home qualifier against Uruguay, in which he netted the only goal of the game to send Argentina top of the group standings. However, a slight groin injury forced him to miss the match with Venezuela later in the week and the same issue forced him to sit out last Thursday’s tie with Peru. Both matches ended 2-2, dropping Argentina to fifth in the standings and outside the automatic qualification berths at the halfway point.

The statistics do not lie: With Messi, Argentina have taken nine points from a possible nine; without Messi they have managed just seven from a potential 18. Paraguay, who held their southern rivals 0-0 in Asuncion, know victory tonight would close the gap to one point, with Argentina facing Brazil and Colombia next month.

Bauza will start Agüero tonight, despite a slight injury concern, while Atlético Madrid’s Nicolás Gaitán has also been drafted into the line-up to join the Manchester City striker, Di María and Higuaín in attack. “This group of players are ready to give everything to represent Argentina in the best way,” Bauza told reporters. “It is a great sacrifice and they are dying to try and make things right and win the match.”

Spanish media report Messi will be on the bench for Barcelona’s match with Deportivo La Coruna this weekend, with the intention being to give him some minutes in the second half. Regardless of tonight’s result, all of Argentina — from the president to the average fan on the street — will be watching closely their captain’s recovery. There is no denying now that the country needs him.

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Last Update: Tuesday, 11 October 2016 KSA 10:33 - GMT 07:33
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Messi-less: Why Argentina struggles due to superstar’s absence
Never in the current Conmebol system has a country managed so few points after three games and recovered to qualify for the tournament proper
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