The Albiceleste has served his three-month suspension for inferring CONMEBOL was corrupt and now has another chance to put one over on the Selecao
The 2019 Copa America saw usually mild-mannered Lionel Messi blow his top, furious at the standard of refereeing at the tournament and especially at what he saw as bias towards hosts and eventual winners Brazil.
Now, after three months out of international action, he has been back – with his first game against none other than the Selecao itself.
It has been a popular myth that Messi does not ‘feel’ the passion that should go hand-in-hand with pulling on the Argentina shirt.
He has long been dogged by unflattering comparisons with Diego Maradona, who was – and remains – as combustible as Messi has been composed.
However, the idea that Messi lacked his compatriot’s fighting spirit was blown out of the water in July.
We saw the Barcelona No.10 lose it like never before after July’s semi-final loss to Brazil, with Messi left enraged by Roddy Zambrano’s handling of the game in Belo Horizonte.
With the hosts leading through Gabriel Jesus’ first-half strike, almost the entire Argentina team stood still pleading for a foul in the area on Sergio Aguero while Tite’s men hared up the other end and doubled their advantage with just 19 minutes remaining.
Zambrano could have taken a second look at the passage but instead pointed to the centre circle and turned a deaf ear to the Albiceleste’s recriminations in the heat of the Mineirao.
“The CONMEBOL people are going to have to do something. They were constantly giving stupid things: handballs, nonsense penalties and here they didn’t look at VAR,” Messi fumed after the final whistle as Brazil celebrated.
“We had two clear penalties that weren’t given… the referee wasn’t fair.”
Those comments, and even stronger assertions made in the wake of a red card for tussling with Gary Medel in the third-place play-off against Chile – “We shouldn’t have to be part of this corruption and disrespect that we received in this Copa” – prompted CONMEBOL to suspend Messi for three months from international competition and issue a stern warning over his future conduct.
As fate would have it, he returns just in time for a rematch with Brazil, on November 15 – and Messi may just fancy his chances of getting revenge on the pitch.
Refereeing controversy aside, Argentina’s Copa campaign was a monument to chaos under the nervous eye of Lionel Scaloni.
The rookie coach essentially learned as he went along in Brazil, making no end of curious team selections and substitutions before stumbling upon a winning formula that dragged the Albiceleste into the last four.
Happily for Argentina, that accidental moment of clarity has been consolidated and built upon in their captain’s enforced absence.
The likes of Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo De Paul, Lautaro Martinez and German Pezzella are now undisputed starters in Scaloni’s line-up, which looks far healthier and more settled than four months ago.
There are still doubts, particularly in goal and in the defence, but the return of Messi and Sergio Aguero only bolsters a team that has gone from strength to strength since the Copa.
Brazil, meanwhile, have plateaued somewhat since lifting the trophy. Tite’s charges have failed to win any of their last four friendlies and continue to struggle with the absence of their own golden boy, the perennially injured Neymar.
Dani Alves, Argentina’s tormentor-in-chief during the semi-final, will also be missing in Riyadh, with likely replacement Danilo a competent but far less daunting prospect for the Albiceleste.
Beyond any personal vendetta Messi might still bear towards Brazil, a win over the Selecao would be an important marker for this young Argentina team.
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Friendly it might be – albeit under the official, rather grandiose title of Superclasico de las Americas – but a positive result against their rivals and Uruguay four days later would put them in a great frame of mind going into a 2020 which brings the start of World Cup qualifying and yet another Copa, this time on home soil.
Messi will be the centre of attention, as he always has been when he sets foot on a football pitch. And if anyone has the talent and drive to right perceived wrongs and show Brazil his fury can be channelled into something positive, it has been the little phenomenon.
But around him he also has a promising team with no little motivation of their own to get one over on their neighbours to the north, and if they can reproduce the form shown so far since that angry evening in Belo Horizonte, this time it might be Brazil who end the game feeling frustrated.