Argentina, Lionel Messi must embrace and overcome the chaos vs. Iceland
MOSCOW -- Every time Lionel Messi transitions from his club responsibilities with Barcelona to those of the Argentina national team, he seems to move to an alternate dimension.
With Barcelona, there is at least predictability. The Blaugrana field a ridiculously talented team every year, challenge for trophies, win a few of them, and Messi will bag his usual haul of 40-50 goals per season.
When it comes time to represent Argentina, Messi moves from the relative calm to the chaotic. There has been organizational disorder at the Argentine Football Federation (AFA) level since longtime president Julio Grondona passed away in 2014, culminating in last week's politically charged decision to cancel a friendly with Israel.
There has been a parade of managers during the qualification cycle as well, from Gerardo "Tata" Martino to Edgardo Bauza and now Jorge Sampaoli. Argentina can't catch a break on the injury front, either, with goalkeeper Sergio Romero ruled out with a knee injury shortly after Sampaoli announced his squad. Manuel Lanzini soon followed Romero to the sideline, tearing the ACL in his right knee during training.
Messi is supposed to surmount all of this, though, and the expectations will be the same when the Albiceleste begins its World Cup campaign against Iceland on Saturday. It doesn't matter how poorly his team is playing on the field or how cacophonous off-field matters are. Superman ought to be able to conquer all.
Of course, there have been moments when Messi has done plenty to drag his team at least within sniffing distance of the proverbial finish line. It was largely through his efforts that Argentina reached the 2014 World Cup final, where it fell to Germany in extra time. Then there were the defeats at the two most recent Copa Americas, with Argentina falling both times to Chile on penalties. Sure, Messi's penalty miss at the Copa America Centenario lingers in the memory, but there's no disputing that Argentina doesn't get in that position without him. And when it came time to deliver in the crunch World Cup qualifier against Ecuador, there was Messi, scoring a sublime hat trick to salvage Argentina's campaign.
Ironically, the chances that Messi will make his long-awaited World Cup breakthrough depend on adding a bit more chaos to the proceedings through Sampaoli. An avowed disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli championed the hyper-pressing 3-3-1-3 while managing the Chile team that beat Messi in the 2015 Copa America final. But only now has Sampaoli had an extended period of time to work with this team, and with a lack of speed at the back, he has had to alter his methods.
It looks like Messi will occupy a free role behind striker Gonzalo Higuain, in what bears a striking resemblance to a 4-4-2, though Sampaoli himself is calling it 2-3-3-2. Ah yes, Higuain: the man who can usually be counted on to squander glorious chances in tournament finals. But he's not alone.
The last time one of Higuain, Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero or Paulo Dybala scored for Argentina in a competitive match was back in late 2016. And for all the talk about forwards finishing, the bigger key might be the performances of the midfield playmaker behind Messi. Ever Banega could be that man, as could Lucas Biglia. The ability of either (along with di Maria) to find Messi in good spots could make Argentina an unstoppable force.
The back line will need to be sharp as well, though that was the case for much of qualifying. It was at the other end of the field that the struggles arose.
Granted, Iceland enjoys creating a bit of chaos of its own, albeit in a completely different way. While it's tempting to tout the match as "Messi vs. The Minnows," Iceland showed at Euro 2016 that it can be a handful for teams on its day with a style that is direct, aided considerably by set-piece prowess and a bit of skill thrown in.
Much of that technique resides with Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson. A knee injury limited his minutes toward the end of the club season, though he scored in a 3-2 friendly defeat to Norway and later played into the second half in a 2-2 draw with Ghana. But as those scorelines attest, Iceland have been leaking goals and had to absorb considerable pressure against Ghana.
Argentina figures to own the ball as well, all of which points to Iceland finding it difficult to replicate the magic of Euro 2016. But Saturday, all eyes will be on Messi to see if he and his teammates can embrace -- and overcome -- the chaos around them.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.