Lionel Messi is back in form with PSG. The goalscoring machine is finding his form again and he will have to remain like that if he is to lift the trophy this winter. Despite that there are still unanswered questions for Lionel Scaloni's team, but there is a growing belief that a spectacular conclusion may be in the works. Argentina visited Russia in 2018 with the conviction that it was now or never. They had fallen short in the previous World Cup final. A talented generation of attackers was becoming older.
After losing to Chile in the second straight Copa América final, Lionel Messi, then 31 years old, briefly considered retiring from international competition two years prior. In Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentinian Football Association had finally been able to choose a vibrant and forward-thinking coach who promised to bring back the optimism of the Bielsista era.
Despite Messi's one outstanding goal against Nigeria and his valiant exit against France in the round of 16, the most recent World Cup was a tremendous letdown. A dull draw with Iceland and a humiliatingly lopsided loss to Croatia were the results.
While trying to overcome the fundamental mismatch of Argentina's army of lumbering defenders with his need for an aggressive press and a high line, Sampaoli appeared overburdened by the task, grey-faced and sweating.
Even before paying out his contract, the AFA was almost bankrupt due to its senility and factional infighting, which made it evident that he had to go. His best quality when Lionel Scaloni, the former West Ham full-back, was hired to replace him, initially as a caretaker, was that he was inexpensive because he had previously been hired as one of Sampaoli's assistants.
Argentina succumbed to pessimism because Messi's abilities appeared to be dwindling and the manufacturing line that had produced five Under-20 World Cups between 1995 and 2007 was broken.
But occasionally, everything just comes together. In order to win the Copa América last year, Argentina defeated Brazil at the Maracana. Under the premise of changing the calendar, a new tournament was introduced to the schedule to raise money for underfunded federations. The event itself was essentially lifeless, with players openly considering a boycott while playing in empty venues. But the fact that Argentina's 28-year trophy drought was finally over was all that mattered to them. La Scaloneta, as this side has come to be known, can now reflect further.
Because it lacks depth, the Messi story has always been extremely underwhelming. At least at the club level, he has been ridiculously reliable and persistently successful ever since he joined Barcelona as a 13-year-old. He hasn't experienced any of the operatic ups and downs that defined the life of the great hero, to whom he is always being compared. Diego Maradona battled illness, a cocaine addiction, and a horribly injured ankle.
Messi occasionally became agitated with his teammates. But this might be the acclaim that his career has been building for, leading Argentina to an unlikely third World Cup at the age of 35, when everything appeared lost.
That is the romantic perspective, which is supported by Messi's outstanding performance for Paris Saint-Germain. However, there are still real-world problems with Argentina, mostly due to AFA's inefficiency. It has only been a year since police and medical personnel tried to jail three players for alleged violations of Covid rules during Argentina's World Cup qualifying match against Brazil. Cristian Romero was unable to attend Friday's friendly match in Miami versus Honduras due to alleged visa issues brought on by the Queen's funeral's announced bank holiday.
But there are other problems as well. Argentina is upset because the Uefa Nations League does not provide them with a wide choice of opponents of high caliber. Argentina's 34-game unbeaten streak over Honduras was extended to 3-0, and they should surpass Italy's record of 37 against Jamaica on Tuesday.
Even if it included success at the Euros, Italy's record was created between two World Cups for which they did not qualify, suggesting the usefulness of such statistics. However, Argentina's streak only includes four games against non-Latin American teams, which may be more pertinent.
Despite their spectacular 3-0 victory over Italy in the Copa Finalissima, which was held at Wembley in June and featured the winners of the Euros and the Copa America, Argentina had not played a non-Conmebol team since defeating Estonia 5-0 in a friendly three years prior. Nobody would prepare for the World Cup that way.
There are still unanswered questions, especially at the always difficult full-back spot. Neither the back-up left-back, Marcos Acua, nor the right-back Gonzalo Montiel plays regularly for their clubs. For Atlético and Internazionale, Angel Correa and Joaquin Correa are frequently utilized as substitutes. At Juventus, Angel Di Mara has battled to get game time. The AFA continues to exist.
However, they follow a style and a pattern. They are assured. Although they would have preferred to have seen more of the elite European opposition, the idea of Messi's triumphant conclusion is still very much alive.