Lionel Messi is the ultimate equalizer. The big brother that you bring to the school to address your bullies. The father that comes to settle the argument and dole out punishments. The ringer on the team of misfits who has played professionally in some glamorized country where even the worst products are leagues better than anyone in your indoor team. With him there is always hope. Yet, Argentina is doing all that it can to extinguish that feeling.
The accepted narrative for a long time was that Messi couldn't perform for Argentina as well as he did for Barcelona. In some ways it was true, but most of the time, it was a terrible argument. If Messi is to be chided for being below his standard for his country, then everyone else on the team should be capitally punished for the mockery they make of the game with each cap.
Regardless of manager, personnel or tournament, Argentina adheres to the same tactics. It's not a matter of formation, or specific individual instruction. It boils down to one enduring and pathetic constant: Messi, please bail us out!
Against Colombia, Argentina were rampant. It was reminiscent of their start against Paraguay, when they were quickly up 2-0 before halftime. Except, try as they did, the ball refused to hit the back of the net: first a block, then a miraculous save, then an even more astounding double save; a goal-line clearance and an outstretched leg that barely missed an agonizingly teasing ball across goal. Woodwork, woodwork, hands over the head and a look of disbelief among the players. Infertile, the score remained 0-0.
Messi, as he has been all tournament, was at the center of all good things for the Argentinians. Creating chances, beating multiple defenders and trying his own hand at breaking whatever curse the Colombians had placed on them. This is now a constant. Since dragging his national team to last year's World Cup final, the best player in the world has been at the height of his powers for his country. He was their best player in World Cup qualifying too.
Colombia knew this and they did what any sensible team would and should do: they kicked him. They ravaged his legs and declared war on his body. Every dribble and pass was met with a warning check to his torso or ankles. Every run was a battle for freedom, as arms and limbs were extended to hold him, as it was a strain for space. Several of the Colombians should have been sent off in the first half.
The issue is that these tactics, while effective against ordinary players, do not deter Messi much. Whatever alien race he may be the chosen child of has instilled in him the quiet demeanor and dignity to get up and continue the game, even if the Colombians turned it into a WWE-style event.
The bigger problem is that Messi's partners in offense have abandoned their bodies. Javier Pastore is the closest thing that Argentina has had to Riquelme for a long time. The string-bean playmaker is a combination of style and intelligence that is sorely missed in modern times. But in this game, he was completely ineffective. The rough and tumble nature of the match fazed him so much that one could be excused for thinking that he was on the bench. So was Sergio Aguero, who is arguably the best striker in the world when he is fit. Here he was able-bodied and yet played as if he was Radamel Falcao instead.
Angel Di Maria's regression has been quite shocking. After his move to Manchester United, Argentina played a friendly rematch of the World Cup final against Germany in which Messi sat. No matter, Di Maria completely tore apart the Germans that night. It was one of the best individual performances on the international stage in recent years. He beat players easily, he scored absurd goals, and caused fans to lament his absence in the final.
Whatever happened in Manchester has destroyed that player from the past. This shadow, this falsehood, this homunculus can barely trap a ball. His greatest ability now is dribbling into dead ends, or having his first touch take the ball out of play, or running into the keeper because he's not confident enough to bring the ball down. He was bad, and he has been bad for awhile. It's past worrying now.
The less said about the rest, the better. Ezequiel Lavezzi is an enigma. Gonzalo Higuain is lost in a wilderness of himself, and only the heavens know why Tata Martino wastes Ever Banega on the bench.
Carlos Tevez, the man who was exiled from the national team for years, would be the savior in the end, scoring the winning penalty kick. He is one of the few, alongside Messi, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Romero and Pablo Zabaleta who can hardly be criticized for a lack of effort or performance. While not as aesthetically pleasing in his face or his game as his countrymen and fellow strikers, he is much more capable at this stage. He actually helps lift the burden off Messi.
There should be no reason in this team for Messi to have to dribble past a whole defense. Yet he does multiple times a game because the inadequacy of his teammates forces him to. When Colombia decided that they wanted a street fight, most of the Argentinians cowered and looked once again for their captain to save them. They forgot how to control a pass, how to make a five-yard run to open up space or how to finish off chances.
Argentina survived again but this system is just as embarrassing now as it's always been. Messi needs help. It's the same old story every year.