Lionel Messi’s World Cup supporting cast has completely changed since 2018

As Argentina prepares for the 2022 World Cup final appearance against France on Sunday, it’s hard to ignore just how different this team looks to not that of only four years ago, but eight years ago when the South Americans finished as runners-up in 2014. While five players who played against France in the 2018 round of 16 remain, just two remain from that ’14 squad. It’s Angel di Maria, and, of course, Lionel Messi.
The 35-year-old has indisputably been the greatest player of the last 15 years, and his success and quality has had him in contention for the world’s best player ever. With five goals in this tournament, he’s tied for the lead with Paris Saint-Germain teammate and Sunday’s rival Kylian Mbappe of France. Messi is also tied for the lead in assists with three.
But it hasn’t just been Messi. It’s mainly been him and Julian Alvarez going forward. Out of Argentina’s 12 goals scored at the World Cup, nine have been from this dynamic duo, one that has flourished, while also providing the partnership that he’s always needed. Alvarez is just one of the many young pieces to come into this team and help take it to another level.
This team has seen strides made everywhere, from a backline that has featured players well below top-level players like Martin Demichelis and Marcos Rojo, swapping them for Nicolas Otamendi, Lisandro Martinez and Cristian Romero, to a midfield more versatile than the days of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, filled with youthful talents giving this team a more balanced approach.
While their opponents, France, have managed to reload, dealing with injuries yet still making the final, Argentina didn’t. They rediscovered themselves. With all of the tournament heartaches over the years, a youthful core was brought in to compliment Messi, and it resulted in lifting the biggest weight of Messi’s shoulders, winning hardware with his country for the first time. His team achieved that last year by beating Brazil in Brazil to claim the Copa America title. Now, this is all bonus with the ultimate attainable prize potentially 90 minutes away.
Along with Alvarez, Enzo Fernandez has been another big surprise, looking stellar in the middle, delivering consistent performances and seeing his stock skyrocket. It wasn’t just his goal against Mexico or his assist to Alvarez against Poland, he’s been everywhere with consistent passing and the ability to be aggressive when needed. It’s only a matter of time before he leaves Benfica for a giant in Europe’s bigger leagues. But Fernandez and Alvarez entered this World Cup as backups, and they’ve since become vital parts of this team.
This new-look Argentina, one that has existed since Lionel Scaloni took over in 2018, has blossomed into a team that is at times unbeatable. You’ll remember that they entered the cup on a 36-game unbeaten streak, one shy of the world record, only to then lose to Saudi Arabia in the opening game in what was an all-time World Cup upset.
After that match, Messi was sure his team would respond, and a switch was flipped back on.
“To the fans? Believe,” Messi said after the 2-1 loss to the Saudis in November. “It’s a hard blow for everyone. We didn’t expect to start like this. Believe, because this group is not going to leave you stranded.
“It’s a very heavy blow, a defeat that hurts, but we must continue to have confidence in ourselves.
“This group is not going to give up.”
They haven’t, and they’ve only gotten better game by game. Whether it be Messi’s incredible assists or Alvarez’s well-timed goals, this is a team on a mission to deliver the country its first World Cup title since 1986. They’ve managed to do it with a style that suits them perfectly.
The team loves to have the ball but not always to go forward, rather being patient in attack when possible unless it is a clear counter opportunity. Argentina’s forward passing % is ranked 30th out of 32 teams at the World Cup, but things shift to another gear when in the attacking third. In that final third, they have the most passes attempted in the tournament and the most completed. All three goals against Croatia might have come from the counter, but as we saw against Australia and the Netherlands, they can slow it down and do damage as well.
Sure, it’s reliant on Messi, but what attack wouldn’t be when you have arguably the greatest of all time playing at the highest level we’ve ever seen him at a World Cup? On most attacks, it’s common for Messi to get a touch on the ball and be the engine that starts it, and his leadership has been on full display. It’s important in each attack for Messi to touch the ball even once, as just that can free up space for teammates, knowing the imposing threat the Rosario native is.
But what has felt different is him directing his teammates where to be in order to facilitate his acquisition of the ball, showing an advanced leadership that we don’t always get to see. While he’s tied for first in goals, he leads the tournament in xG, shots on target, tied for the lead in assists, second in big chances created and second in touches in the opposition box. He’s been able to generate that with the brilliant usage of his teammates in certain spots. Take the semifinal vs. Croatia as an example, as with the Argentines up 2-0, Messi and company were looking to put a fork in it. Messi directs Alvarez to get in front of Croatia’s budding superstar defender Joško Gvardiol. That is to allow Messi to get into space with the ball, and the rest is history. Look closely:
Impressive to say the least, but that is just one of many examples that show the chemistry that they have together, all while Di Maria, Messi’s long standing partner in attack (he’s not only the only holdover with Messi from 2014, but they were both on the 2010 side as well), has been nursing an injury, which has seen him unable to start the last three games. But Messi and Alvarez have proven that they can carry the load with Di Maria as another option, potentially off the bench. Di Maria was the man to score in their Copa America final with his lofted solo effort, and he’ll likely be needed if fit.
With the attack playing how it is, with the young guys responding to Messi and not wanting to let him down, with Fernandez bringing class to the middle of the park, and an aggressive defense showing up in big spots, this isn’t the same Argentina that failed eight years ago or even the one that won the Copa America. It’s the best version seen since probably the early 1990s. On Sunday, now they hope to party like their parents did, like it was 1986.
From CBS Sports 


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