It is not something the majority of football fans will want to spend much time contemplating, but it is unavoidable: Lionel Messi, the greatest player of his generation, is not getting any younger.
And for Argentinians, the idea of his impending retirement is felt more keenly than most.
Messi has famously never won an international trophy, a stick with which detractors regularly beat him. And this international cycle – the Copa America in 2021 and World Cup in 2022 – will perhaps be the Argentinian’s last chance to right that wrong.
With that in mind, Messi has transformed into a different style of leader for his national team – vocal, aggressive, and very much in the thick of it every time a contentious decision is made.
That new Lionel Messi was seen clearly on Wednesday night in Buenos Aires as Argentina drew 1-1 with Paraguay. In the second half, Messi turned to Brazilian referee Rafael Claus and looked him in the eyes as he made his feelings over a poor decision clear – “You’ve already fucked us over twice.”
Messi had had a goal cruelly ruled out by a VAR review after the referee had spotted a soft foul in the passage of play that led to it. So he was justified in feeling aggrieved. Yet whether he was right or not is perhaps beside the point – the more central lesson is what Messi is trying to show.
In his desperation to rid himself of the one blemish on a sparkling CV, he appears to be taking on this new role of aggressor to gee up his teammates and create a sense of rancour that can be used to drive them to success.
Messi’s desire is clear. The question, then, is whether Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni can finally be the man to build a side around Messi that will help him lift an international trophy.
After a disastrous World Cup in 2018 in which Argentina played a chaotic brand of football utterly unsuitable for their ageing squad, Jorge Sampaoli was fired and ex-West Ham full back Scaloni was installed. Scaloni had no elite coaching experience and a hell of a job to contend with.
Argentina's line up versus Paraguay
He had two major issues: the defence was notoriously leaky, and the dependence on Messi for creativity and goals was almost absolute. In qualifying for Russia, Argentina took 0.88 points per game without Messi in the team and 2.1 points per game with him.
In the three games so far in the qualifiers for 2022 – Wednesday’s draw with Paraguay and last month’s narrow wins over Ecuador and Bolivia – we have seen some indicators of how Scaloni is progressing in his mission to solve those problems, despite the odd circumstances in which football is currently being played.
In attack, there appears to have been some progress. Messi remains extremely central to the team, which was seen sharply against Ecuador last month, when Argentina looked laboured and relied on the Barcelona player if they were to create any sort of opening.
But in the fixture against Paraguay, there was a little more promise. Scaloni switched to a 3-4-3 for the games, adding the balance of two extra players in midfield for nailed-on starters Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul, which added solidity and helped the Albiceleste retain possession.
Scaloni has other options in midfield including of either Exequiel Palacios, whose greater physical attributes will be useful against more aggressive teams, or Giovani Lo Celso, who dovetailed beautifully with Messi on Wednesday night. Lo Celso set up Messi’s ruled out goal and sped up some of the ponderous passing in midfield that has seen them struggle to create previously.
Up front, Scaloni has opted for a narrow front three of Messi alongside the energetic Lucas Ocampos and brilliant young Inter Milan player Lautaro Martinez. There are sufficient goals in that trio, but the narrowness up front does create an issue. Argentina rely on their wide midfielders for attacking width and with them high up they are vulnerable to the counterattack.
On Wednesday, Newcastle midfielder Miguel Almiron was having a great deal of joy running at and behind Argentina right-sided defender Gustavo Montiel and it was one of those runs that led to Paraguay winning the penalty from which they scored.
If Argentina had a strong central defensive pairing, the issue would perhaps be disguised, but unfortunately for Scaloni, the problems previous managers have faced in the position persist.
Despite calling up a slew of new players elsewhere, Scaloni has kept faith in Nicolas Otamendi, who remains an error-in-waiting. Ideally, Otamendi would now be surplus to requirements, but the other options provide little experience.
24-year-old Lucas Martinez Quarta, who recently moved from River Plate to Fiorentina, has lined up alongside Otamendi for the last three games and on the bench against Paraguay were 20-year-old Granada player Nehuen Perez and 21-year-old Lens centre-half Facundo Medina.
Also in the squad are Ajax’s 22-year-old defender-cum-midfielder Lisandro Martinez, who Scaloni is bafflingly reluctant to use, and Walter Kannemann, who, though more experienced, is too cumbersome for international football.
Even with those weak points, Argentina will surely have enough to qualify for Qatar 2022 provided Messi stays fit. But their best chance of silverware is without doubt next year’s Copa America, which will be played half in Argentina and half in Colombia.
Home advantage will be a boost, but if they are to take a first continental title since 1993, they still have work to do. For Messi, it is a race against time.