Lionel Messi failed to live up to some great expectations with his penalty kick failure. (Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Front RowSoccer.com Editor
In light of Cristiano Ronaldo’s other-worldly hat-trick in Portugal’s epic 3-3 Group B draw with Spain in the World Cup Friday, comes a confounding contrast and rather disheartening and disappointing performance from his forever archrival, Lionel Messi.
The two have battled for international glory — for club (Ronaldo for Real Madrid and Messi for Barcelona) and country — the past decade, having split the FIFA World Player of the Year over the last 10 years.
But today you have to give the edge to CR7 for what he has accomplished not only for Real but for Portugal. In 2016, he led the Portuguese to the Euro 2016 crown. We don’t know how far his side will go at Russia 2018, but he is certainly off to an historic start.
Ronaldo’s performance in the group stage was one for the ages by someone who is aging. Let’s face it, there are not many strikers in World Cup history who have recorded a hat-trick after the age of 30 and the Portuguese superstar became the oldest player in World Cup history to score three goals in match. Not too shabby for an “old man” of 33, considered ancient for a forward in current soccer that is played in the fast lane.
If CR7 can continue his scoring, perhaps he can threaten the single World Cup scoring record of Just Fontaine, who tallied a remarkable 13 goals for France during the high-scoring 1958 competition. Of course, any players who scores goals needs times — games — to accomplish that feat. Fontaine played in six matches in 1958, averaging slightly more than two goals a game. A ridiculous pace, indeed, for any top-flight striker.
After he tallied his first goal against Spain, Ronaldo stroked his chin as he ran in celebration after scoring the first of three goals — a penalty kick. Apparently, he was saying he was the G.O.A.T — aka greatest of all time. Messi has been in an adidas ad with a goat.
In so many ways, Messi’s performance in Argentina’s 1-1 draw with Iceland Saturday was the antithesis of Ronaldo. He didn’t score and had a penalty kick saved.
An abysmal performance by an all-time great.
Give a lot of credit to Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, who devised a perfect plan to limit and thwart the supeerstar. It seemed every important shot Messi attempt (11 shots, three on target) was blocked by a defender or saved by goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.
Halldorsson’s best save came in the 64th minute, when he dived to this right to make a two-handed save on Messi with the score knotted at 1-1. It was Messi’s fourth miss in his last seven PK tries.
Not exactly a number that spurs confidence when a game is on the line or during a shootout.
As outstanding as Messi has been for club, he has been less than stellar for country. Like it or not, he is the goat after the opening three days of the competition, a great comedown for someone who is considered among the world’s greatest.
If La Albiceleste don’t get their act together, Messi will go down in history as one of the all-time great club players, but someone who failed to grab the brass ring at the international. Incredible as this may sound, but Messi has never won a major international title with Argentina, falling in the 2014 final to Germany and losing to Chile in 2015 Copa America championship match and in the 2016 Copa America Centenario title bout.
While Messi has to shoulder some of the blame, we must remember that one man — or woman — doesn’t make a soccer team. It takes 11, well, to tango, as they might say in Argentina. And whoever has coached the team in recent years has not found the right formula for his team. Argentina — the country, not the national team, is loaded with attacking talent. They have goal-scorers filling the net on a weekly basis for some of the top clubs in Europe. Yet, no one has figured out on how to utilize them and Messi properly.
Of course, we might be spoiled by Messi’s success with Barca. His teammates know him and vice versa. They probably can play together with blindfolds. While Messi is an Argentine by birth, he is a Spaniard in spirit, living there year-round outside of his international commitments to his South American side.
Time is running out for Messi, who turns 31 on June 24. He’s got two group stage matches and assuming Argentina moves on, at least a Round of 16 encounter. Anything less than that will be devastating for the country.
Then again, Argentina has become accustomed to being disappointed when its national side plays at international competitions.