Argentina have made a poor start to their Copa America campaign with two draws and do not look like a team ready to end a two-decade trophy drought, but they will recover and reach the quarter-finals, insists star Lionel Messi.
FIFA World Player of the Year Messi proved unstoppable all season with a Barcelona shirt on his back but with Argentina he has become a metaphor for the team's stuttering form which saw the albiceleste drop points to Bolivia and then just scrape another draw with Colombia.
Successive final defeats against rivals Brazil, adding to their lack of success going back to the 1993 Copa, plus the fact this year's competition is at home, has ratcheted up the pressure on the Argentinians, but Messi says they will get it together against Costa Rica tomorrow in Cordoba. By then, Colombia will have won the group if they can get past the Bolivians and even a draw will be enough, meaning Argentina are condemned to secure all three points against the Ticos.
Messi is caught in the headlights as the debate rages nationwide about why he cannot seemingly turn on the style in the country of his birth.But he insists everything will come together. "I feel fine and I am really up for it. I am confident the team will qualify. We'll pull it out," the 24-year-old told sports daily Ole.
The Costa Ricans managed a goal-less draw in a March friendly but Argentina simply cannot afford a repeat. Former Argentina coach Alfio Basile, who masterminded the side's run to the 1993 title, told Radio Concepto yesterday that "if we don't go through it will be a disaster. "But we should win it," he added, calling on coach Sergio Batista to make changes if he felt deep down that he must.
"I'm thinking about changing the system," Batista had revealed in his Clarin column on Friday, hinting that Messi would play just off Gonzalo Higuain, with Sergio Aguero and Angelo di Maria also brought in, meaning Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi may drop to the bench. Basile said Messi needs the ball. "I know him," he said. "If he doesn't have the ball he goes crazy and drifts out of the game."
Former Brazil star Bebeto said earlier that if Messi aspires to be a true great, talked of in the same breath as Diego Maradona, he has to win international honours. The irony is those honours could have come at last year's FIFA World Cup™, for Spain. Messi turned down the chance to play for Spain as early as 2004 so, whatever his detractors say at home, there is no doubt where his loyalties lie, even if in 2005 he did take Spanish nationality and has a Spanish passport issued to circumvent regulations limiting non-EU foreigners in La Liga sides.
Had he elected to play for the Spanish, alongside clubmates Xavi and Andres Iniesta - seen as the key elements he is missing in the Argentine side - he would now likely have a FIFA World Cup winners medal, removing a key arguement holding some observers back from granting him the title of "best ever."
Costa Rica, meanwhile, have found self-belief after beating Bolivia. They have also found a young star in teen striker Joel Campbell, who noted that the Ticos have nothing to fear. "The pressure is on Argentina. They have to win," said the man from Deportivo Saprissa, who have reportedly slapped a five-million dollars price tag on the head of a youngster who is already being compared to Samuel Eto'o. With wisdom beyond his years, Campbell also notes that "we're not just playing against Messi." They're playing a team which has to find its form - and quickly.