Neil Humphreys: Stop expecting Lionel Messi miracles
Argentina legend is simply too good for his limited side of kids, journeymen and defensive plodders
Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi have something in common. They're not always comfortable playing with Nicolas Otamendi.
It's nothing personal. It's just that Otamendi represents two teams in transition.
For Manchester City, he's a no-frills defender left over from the kind of team that the treble winners once were. For Argentina, he's a rudimentary reminder of what the South Americans still are.
The threat of human error is never far away.
With City, Otamendi plays when others are injured. With Argentina, Otamendi plays because there's no one else.
Guardiola can sign replacements, but Messi, 32, is stuck with Otamendi, the two men joined by their passports.
Their lacklustre 2-0 victory against Qatar yesterday morning (Singapore time) in the Copa America secured safe passage to the knockout stages, but there was more huffing and puffing than a stage show of the Three Little Pigs.
Once again, Messi is the easy target for those content to focus on the legend rather than the less romantic reality.
Argentina are mostly filled with defensive plodders masquerading as title contenders, thanks to their storied history and an extra-terrestrial.
But Messi isn't really Argentina. Otamendi provides a more accurate barometer of his nation's pedigree, an instrument of blunt force rather than balletic finesse.
Alongside him, Juan Foyth made a case that he deserves more than Tottenham Hotspur's bench.
Argentina's midfield predominately features unheralded characters from the lesser lights of La Liga and Serie A with Inter Milan's bright hope, Lautaro Martinez, up front.
That pretty much left the two heavyweights, Messi and Sergio Aguero, to fulfil the unrealistic ambitions of unforgiving supporters, despite a combined age of 63.
Messi remains a global superstar in search of a half-decent side, never as bad as George Best's Northern Ireland, but never quite as talented as Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal either.
Argentina managers have long failed to solve the Messi riddle, struggling to settle that eternal imbalance between their star man's pedigree and his teammates' limitations.
Jorge Sampaoli opted for the high press and a clear objective: Get the ball to Messi faster and earlier. But a high press requires centre-backs of Virgil van Dijk's calibre, fast fullbacks and a goalkeeper capable of using his feet for more than standing on.
La Albiceleste have none of the above. They have just Messi.
But Sampaoli persevered until those defensive frailties were exposed in the World Cup.
NOTHING SEEMS TO WORK
So the inexperienced Lionel Scaloni was brought in to fix the formation. He tried three centre-backs. He pushed his wing-backs forward. He reverted to conventional wingers.
But nothing really worked as the moves often isolated Argentina's No. 10 and underlined both their greatest asset and their glaring weakness. They just have Messi.
Even against lowly Qatar, Scaloni fiddled once more. He opted for a vaguely recognisable 4-3-3, with Martinez leading the line with Aguero so Messi could float where he pleased.
Argentina's midfield trio had to work overtime to support Messi's liberation, but the move paid off. He had freedom of movement to pick passes and dominated, yet again, even with teammates of limited means.
As always, he made do. He worked tirelessly throughout, often without reward.
And still social media ripped into his missed "sitter", even though it wasn't a sitter, in the latest effort to force that tired narrative.
Messi squandered the kind of opportunity he never wastes at Barcelona. Messi doesn't deliver for his country. Messi isn't Diego Maradona or Ronaldo.
Obviously, those statements are untrue. Like an unappreciated lover, Messi could conceivably say: "It's not me, it's you."
He continues to shoulder a burden on behalf of sceptical supporters still quick to question his loyalty to the national cause.
Never mind his record 68 goals for Argentina, he's leading kids and journeymen. Before the Copa America kicked off, 15 of the 23-man squad had fewer than 15 international caps.
But Argentina are progressing, just about, as Scaloni gets to grips with his tactical conundrum. He wants Messi to roam free, but needs an extra man to protect a woeful defence.
He can't really have both.
And yet, somehow, both are expected, as if Messi can make miracles happen at both ends of the pitch.
Argentina's problem isn't Messi. Argentina's problem is that they still haven't found a solution apart from Messi, despite 14 years of trying.