The changing face of Lionel Messi’s inner-circle for Argentina

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Jimmy Lee returns to take a look at a new generation of Argentina stars who appear to making the crucial step of earning Lionel Messi’s trust…

Over the years, a lot has been made of Lionel Messi and his so called ‘friends club’. It has been said and often criticized that if you are not friends with Messi then you will not be selected for the national team and if somehow you are, you won’t be getting much playing time. Many have speculated that this is the exact reason Mauro Icardi will get just as many minutes playing for Argentina in Russia as I will.

For some, Angel Di María, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, and Javier Mascherano have worn out their welcome with the Albiceleste and should have been replaced by young up and coming talent. But as members of Messi’s group of friends, they all found their way into the World Cup squad.

Who are we kidding, as Messi goes, so goes Argentina’s hopes in Russia. If Messi is happy, the Albiceleste improve their chances of making a deep run into the World Cup. No doubt about it, this team belongs to Messi. But if we look deeper into what Messi has said recently, he may be willing to allow some of the younger faces into this group.

Argentine journalist Daniel Arcucci laid out the idea that maybe Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Pavón, and Maxi Meza are making their way into Messi’s view and could become important pieces in Messi’s grand game of chess. What does it take to play alongside Messi, well it could be as simple as “those that connect and synchronize with Messi will play.”

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First, Giovani Lo Celso. “He is the midfielder that plays alongside [Javier] Mascherano and offers an escape, a first pass, for example, what [Fernando] Gago did.”

During qualification, over and over again, Argentine fans would get frustrated watching the national team play scoreless matches. There was little creativity and Messi took the brunt of the blame for not scoring enough goals. But he didn’t score because he rarely found himself in scoring positions.

Messi would regularly make his way all the way back into the recesses of the midfield to get the ball from the centerbacks. When your main creative player and goal scorer is picking the ball up on his team’s own side of the pitch, it is next to impossible, even for Messi, to have good looks at goal. This is what Lo Celso provides. Someone who can link up with Messi from the midfield and allow La Pulga to do what he does best – put the ball into the net.

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Next is Cristian Pavón. I wrote about Pavon last week and my belief that he should replace Di Maria in the starting 11. So, to be brief, Pavón finds open space – he brings the ball and defenders alongside him allowing Messi to make runs into the box. And when Messi gets into that space, Pavón finds him in stride. Messi himself said that Pavón provides, “something different” and that something different could lead to Messi scoring goals like he did against Haiti, assisted by the Boca youngster.

Third is Maxi Meza. More than likely Meza was one of the final players to make the 23-man roster. Don’t assume that this means that he will be one of Sampaoli’s final options off the bench. Meza could very likely play a key role for Argentina and may already have found himself among Messi’s group of friends.

When Argentina was embarrassed 6-1 against Spain at the end of March, Messi couldn’t bear to watch from the stands and left the match early. But that wasn’t before one player left an imprint on Messi’s mind. For those who endured those entire 90 minutes, it became clear the Maxi Meza was the one and only player to leave the pitch that day with his head held high.

When Messi was interviewed by Sebastián Vignolo, he spoke about the impact Meza had on that match.

“Meza surprised me a lot in the match against Spain. He was the best… he took control and got the ball and took charge.” In a roundabout way of saying it, Messi basically said that Meza cared. Maybe it’s because he was given a chance to impress and show Sampaoli that he belonged on the plane to Russia, but there is no denying that on that miserable day in Madrid, Maxi Meza played harder than anyone else wearing the Argentine crest.

Meza does a lot of the same things Manuel Lanzini does and will likely be his like for like replacement in the lineup. But on June 16th when Iceland put all 11 men behind the ball and Sampaoli is looking for the key to break into the defence he may need to turn to Meza for that added energy. Meza is someone who as they say in Argentina, “se pone las pilas” (provides energy) and “tiene huevones” (no translation necessary).

Daniel Arcucci added, “It’s true. In the Argentine National team, Messi’s friends play. Those who get along with Messi will play. Those who connect and synchronize with Messi on the pitch will play. And this is not a bad thing.”

What more is there to say. Messi is the key to Argentina’s success in Russia. Of course, others will play a vital role, but at the end of the day, the job of all others should be to support Messi as he tries to accomplish what Mario Kempes and Diego Maradona have done for Argentina in years past – elevate Argentina to world football glory and immortality.

Jimmy lived in Córdoba, Argentina as a teenager and is still an active Socio for his beloved club, Belgrano. He currently lives in Seattle, WA and loves to write about football when he has a break from work and family. He also runs the Belgrano – English twitter account.

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