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Argentina lack sparkle without Messi

FOX Soccer Daily: Did Lionel Messi's offseason travel lead to his injuries?
FOX Soccer Daily: Did Lionel Messi's offseason travel lead to his injuries?
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.




Messi's defined his generation. So why not crown him the best ever?

If Argentina played but Lionel Messi didn’t turn up, did it really happen?

The misfortune that befell Argentina’s tiny magician, the thigh muscle tear hear around the world, has reverberated throughout the soccer universe with an unsettling rapidity, as if the game of soccer were played by one man alone. And indeed, the upshots have proved many. For starters: the sad turnout at MetLife Stadium, the cavernous 82,500-seat home of the NFL’s Giants and Jets, for Argentina-Ecuador on Friday night.

If the announced attendance was 49,165, the evidence provided by echoes and the naked eye made that feel like a generous count. Certainly, the vast majority of those that did come out were clad in Ecuador’s yellow. On the last occasions Messi showed up here, against the USA in March 2011 and against Brazil in June 2012, every seat in the house had been taken.

But his absence was felt all the more acutely on the field. With Brazil qualified automatically as hosts, Argentina was the best team in South America during World Cup qualifying, winning the CONMEBOL double round-robin by scoring a very healthy 35 goals in 16 games. Ten of those, of course, were Messi’s.

It’s hard to read much into November friendlies such as these. The European club season is well under way and the players are plainly not into it. Unless they’re bogged down in playoffs, they are either already in the World Cup, or out of it -- both these teams are in it, by the way. And neither outlook engenders much appetite for a footballing fight to the death in New Jersey, thousands of miles from both employer and home country and seven months from the big tournament.

Argentina gave a glimpse into life without Lionel Messi vs. Ecuador -- and it wasn't pretty (Image: Ron Antonelli/LatinContent/Getty Images).

That said, after disappointing performances at five consecutive World Cups, Argentina is as well positioned to contend in Brazil as it’s been since 1986 and 1990, when it won it and finished runner-up, respectively. With a world-class corps of strikers and adequate personnel in every other line, the first tournament played on their home continent since 1978, when Argentina also won the thing, promises much for the Argentinians. Hosts Brazil will be lumbered with crippling pressure, weighing down a young and fairly inexperienced team. Argentina, then, looks like a favorite, along with swashbuckling Germany and defending champion Spain and their bottomless pits of talent.

But absent Messi’s lubrication, the white and baby blue machinery never got going on Friday. In spite of deploying a classic playmaker – or an enganche -- as they call it in Argentina -- in Ever Banega, that all-important rhythm the Argentinians employ to pass opponents off the park was elusive. As such, they mustered just three shots -- one on goal -- in the first half.


With the World Cup one year away, Brazil's final sprint starts now.

More concerning still, the soundly organized but only modestly gifted opposition from Ecuador -- who count Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia as their only star -- had the better of the chances in the first half. Had the only chances, in fact.

If the Ecuadorians had nursed their chances with a little more care -- Valencia’s wide-open header off the post in the 12th minute in particular -- this entire exercise might have been in vain for Argentina. But they weren’t, and so it wasn’t.

The Messi-less collective -- and their identity is very much that in his absence -- finally learned how to cope with life without their talisman, sparkplug and orchestrator in the second half, as Angel di Maria, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain -- all devastatingly effective forwards in their own right -- finally figured out where to find one another and started forging chances. But as soon as Lavezzi came off for Serio Aguero -- another world-class striker -- in the 63rd minute, that newfound facility vanished again. Those in attendance got no goals to reward them for having braved the chill or the Friday night Greater New York City traffic. For their money and troubles, they bought a most forgettable game.

As for Argentina, there’s no shame in being a one-man team when that one man is Messi. But Argentina threatens to be hamstrung by his increasingly balky hamstrings. When Messi returns from his injury, sometime in the new year, those legs will suffer a good four more months of intense assault before he can even begin thinking about the World Cup.

“I think that Argentina is a contender,” Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella said after the game. “But my favorites are Brazil, Spain and Germany.”

But the equation doesn’t break down quite that simply or evenly. The Argentinians are a strange kind of favorite, their contention is both assured and tenuous, their chances both strong and brittle. “Messi is the best player in the world,” Sabella conceded. “And when he is not there, all of us feel his absence. Wherever he plays, in the team he plays, and wherever he is, if he is not there everything is different. And tonight everybody felt his absence.”

On Friday the man who wasn’t there made all the difference. Just as he could in June and July.

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