Why Copa America delay gifts Messi golden opportunity

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The one-year postponement of the Copa America gives Argentina time they must use wisely to avoid squandering probably the most precious asset ever granted to any international team in football history.

A yawning gap remains in Lionel Messi's glittering collection of honours. At club level, the Barcelona superstar has won it all, won it again and won it some more just for good measure. For Argentina, he is yet to lift a major honour.

A sixth Ballon d'Or and a host of typically imperious performances this season show Messi is going nowhere just yet, but he turns 33 this month. His own 'Last Dance' is nearing.

Realistically, the rearranged 2021 Copa America that they will co-host with Colombia and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar represent his final shots at glory for La Albiceleste, with the nagging sense his best chance to emulate the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona with a defining triumph at the highest level might already have passed him by.

THE GOLDEN GENERATION

Over recent years, Messi has frequently appeared wearied as a man carrying the weight of his team on his shoulders for club and country.

Of course, this was not always the case. At Barcelona he was the shimmering jewel in Pep Guardiola's slick and sublime masterpiece before starring as part of Luis Enrique's turbo-charged MSN forward line.

Argentina's more forlorn efforts of late make it easy to forget what a defining generation of talent Messi once spearheaded.

Any heavyweight football nation collecting back-to-back Olympic gold medals, as Argentina did in 2004 and 2008, would reasonably expect the senior honours to follow – with or without arguably the greatest of all time at their disposal.

Names from those podiums in Athens and Beijing trip off the tongue. Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago, Ever Banega, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero are all Olympic champions.

At the 2010 World Cup, the fairytale combination of Messi and the Messiah – Maradona inimitably entertaining but evidently ill-cast as head coach – fell (heavily) to Germany in the quarter-finals.

Die Mannschaft also beat them in 2014 – this time as Mario Gotze scored the only goal in the final during extra time. Alejandro Sabella's steadying hand brought them to the brink of sporting immortality and Messi was named player of the tournament, despite some underwhelming showings by his own standards.

NEAR MISSES, RETIREMENT AND SHAMBLES

Gerardo Martino managed not to win a major trophy when he led Barcelona in 2013-14 and, unfortunately for Messi, history repeated during his tenure with the national team.

Gonzalo Higuain missed a glorious chance in the World Cup final and he and Banega erred from the spot as Chile won the 2015 Copa America in a penalty shoot-out.

Against the same opponents at the Copa America Centenario 12 months later, Messi himself failed amid further heartache from 12 yards.

As emotions ran high in the aftermath, the number 10 announced his retirement from international football, with rumours other stars would follow suit due to disaffection with the Argentine Football Association.

By the time Messi returned for a 3-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Brazil that November, Edgardo Bauza's tenure as head coach was already on the rocks.

Jorge Sampaoli replaced him and Argentina needed an utterly majestic hat-trick from their talisman away to Ecuador to snatch a place at Russia 2018.

Perhaps they shouldn't have bothered.

Having brought Argentina to their knees while in charge of Chile, Sampaoli inadvertently did the same again during a shambling turn ended by eventual champions France in the last 16. There was a near revolt after a group-stage thrashing from Croatia and the coach left with his reputation in tatters.

LIONEL, LIONEL AND LAUTARO

Star names such as Martino and Sampaoli not working out probably help the cause of the unheralded Lionel Scaloni, who emerged from the rubble of Russia to take temporary and then full charge.

The 2019 Copa America got off to a similarly inauspicious start, but they scrambled out of the group and were arguably a little unlucky to lose 2-0 to hosts and eventual winners Brazil in the semis.

A feisty third-place match against Chile was won 2-1 thanks to goals form Aguero and Paulo Dybala, despite Messi bizarrely getting sent for being repeatedly butted by Gary Medel.

An indignant post-match interview brought a four-game ban, although a more vocal Messi leading through words as well as deeds is a pleasing development. In his absence, 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Mexico and Ecuador suggested brighter times ahead with a younger core – even if a diet of friendlies this season makes progress a little hard to judge.

At centre-forward, where Argentina's surplus of riches makes their lack of reward so embarrassing, Lautaro Martinez looks to have established himself as the new number one ahead of Messi's great friend Aguero.

Since Scaloni took charge, the Inter star has nine goals in 13 starts – averaging one every 109.6 minutes and outstripping his expected goals (xG) figure of 6.4. Messi has five goals at 160.4 per minute from an xG of 6.3 over the same period.

European club form coming back home to the national team has not always been a given during the Messi years, so it is encouraging to see Martinez scoring at a faster rate under Scaloni than he has during an acclaimed campaign at San Siro (11 Serie A goals at one every 152 minutes). Aguero's 16 Manchester City goals have arrived every 87.6 Premier League minutes in 2019-20, but his strikes come every 201.7 minutes in the Scaloni era.

THE NEW GENERATION

Aguero still looks highly likely to have some role to play in trying to right a journey of heartache he has charted alongside Messi in blue and white. Others have not been spared as Scaloni quietly shapes a team in his own image. Moulding the ramshackle embarrassment of two years into a compact and hard-working unit necessitated high-profile casualties

Angel Di Maria has not added to his 102 caps since being dropped to the bench during the Copa. Argentina's all-action midfield creator is now Rodrigo de Paul.

One of Scaloni's dependable in a new-look engine room alongside Di Maria's Paris Saint-Germain colleague Leandro Paredes, De Paul's 81 dribbles completed for Udinese were the second most in Serie A last season and his eight assists put him joint fifth alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.

Staying in Serie A, German Pezzella's 60 interceptions, 155 clearances, 96 headed clearances and 30 blocks all see the Fiorentina man rank highly. A late bloomer on the international stage, the 28-year-old was named captain against Ecuador – alongside Ajax's left-back dynamo Nicolas Tagliafico – and he might have just enough about him to offset Nicolas Otamendi's frequent reversions to slapstick.

Scaloni still looks light on quality and cover behind an all-star attack, where Lucas Ocampos and Angel Correa are also thrillingly part of the equation. This is where the 12-month delay could really come in handy.

Paredes, De Paul and Pezzella will all be better with another year of their primes under their belts, while Giovani Lo Celso's development under Jose Mourinho at Tottenham will be watched with interest.

Leonardo Balerdi and Exequiel Palacios are each 21 and early in their Bundesliga careers at Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen – two clubs with exceptional records when it comes to developing young talents.

If this more unheralded generation continue to grow in stature, Scaloni might just have a team to let Argentina dream again. After all, their captain isn't bad either.

Source Omnisport