Dubai: Neymar’s absence may well prove to be Lionel Messi’s gain.
On one hand, he has thrived with club — amassing four Champions League crowns alongside another 10 La Liga crowns with Barcelona — but on the other, Messi has persistently struggled to claim at least one major trophy with his national Argentina side.
Hence, Neymar’s ankle injury may well prove to be a blessing in more ways than one way to Messi as the five-time Ballon d’Or winner from Argentina sets about setting the record straight for his nation.
For once, the 31-year-old from Argentina knows he’s running out of time to rectify that anomaly of having the proverbial bare cupboard. Messi has figured in four finals for Argentina and all four have ended in defeats — including the last two Copa America finals that Argentina lost on penalties to the same opponents, Chile.
Possibly, the most painful was the 2014 World Cup final against Germany at the iconic Maracana Stadium, where Messi will hope to return for the Copa America title decider on July 7. That Germany defeat only kick-started a run of losing finals in three successive years. And after the last defeat, Messi and his teammates came in for huge criticism, forcing a bitterly disappointed Messi to announce his retirement from the international level.
However, luckily for the sport and for Argentina, Messi’s retirement lasted just six weeks. He returned to score a hat-trick in Argentina’s final qualifier that secured a 3-1 win in Ecuador that sent them to the World Cup in Russia last year.
But, once again, like on so many other occasions before, Messi was unable to recapture his Barcelona form while turning up for Argentina as the Albiceleste were sent packing in their second round following a 4-3 defeat to eventual champions France. Since then, Messi has missed all of Argentina’s next six friendly matches, but there has been no talk about the great entertainer stepping away from the sport. In fact, with a 10th La Liga crown under his belt last month, it will be a fully revitalised and rested Messi taking centre stage when Argentina take on Colombia on Sunday.
If Argentina have Messi, then there are a host of others who can also be counted among the favourites, most notably two-time defending champions Chile and hosts Brazil, who are hosting their second major international tournament in the space of five years.
The Selecao made it to the semi-finals of the 2014 Fifa World Cup on home soil, only to be handed out a 7-1 mauling by eventual champions Germany. Even then, Brazil had lost Neymar to injury in the quarter-finals. But this time around coach Tite doesn’t even have the Paris Saint Germain striker at his disposal after Neymar limped out just 17 minutes into their 2-0 friendly win against Qatar last week.
The team, on the other hand, seems to be doing well with a sound win against Bolivia seeing the rest of the stars assuming added responsibilities on the pitch. So even without Neymar, Brazil can still aspire for a ninth Copa America crown and end a 12-year wait in this competition based on their individual ability and flair coming together for a team cause.
Granted, Brazil no longer have world-class strikers in their ranks. But this may well be the right time for others to put up their hands — Messi’s Barca teammate Philippe Coutinho, Ajax starlet David Neres, Everton’s Richarlison or even Manchester City’s under-utilised Gabriel Jesus.
For sure, two-time defending champions Chile will be eyeing a historic third crown — something that has never been achieved under the new format of this competition. But the fact also remains that Chile — who ironically failed to even qualify to the 2018 Fifa World Cup Russia — is an ageing bunch of players.
Juan Antonio Pizzi was replaced as head coach by Reinaldo Rueda in January 2018 after La Roja missed out on Russia. But whether this bunch of players will be able to raise their game remains to be seen. If not, the stage is wide open for Messi to stamp his class and put in a major trophy into an otherwise empty national trophy cabinet.
The 46th edition of Copa America will see 12 nations battle it out for the famous trophy with the Selecao competing against Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, as well as guest entrants Japan and Qatar.