Lionel Messi was the driving force that secured the La Liga crown for Barcelona in the 2017/18 campaign. The Argentine was simply sensational throughout the term as his side leaned more on his prowess in front of goal than ever following the departure of Neymar, while his partner in crime Luis Suarez struggled to find his best form in the early stages of the campaign. Messi scored 34 goals in 36 games for the Catalan club guiding his club to the Spanish crown – for the ninth time in his career.
However, Messi was not able to translate his form at club level at the 2018 World Cup as Argentina crashed out in the round-of-16 at the hands of France. The Albiceleste were fortunate even to reach the knockout phase of the tournament after struggling in their Group D matches. A late Marcos Rojo goal was needed to see off Nigeria to guide them through to the latter stage. Messi had previously missed a penalty against Iceland to cost his side two valuable points, although his brilliant strike against Nigeria was crucial in the final group win.
Jorge Sampaoli’s men needed an outstanding performance from their skipper against France to carry them into the last eight. The 31-year-old cut an isolated figure in the final third as he was played out of position. He had brief moments in the contest, but did not have the standout display required. Playing alongside Sergio Aguero for a full 90 minutes may have made a difference. Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala failed to emerge from the bench, raising further questions of Sampaoli as Argentina slipped to a 4-3 defeat. The contest may have been Messi’s final act on the international stage. He came close to retiring after his penalty miss played a role in the Albiceleste’s defeat to Chile in the Copa American, only to overturn his decision.
Messi faces an important choice over his future in order to extend his longevity at the top of the game. Barcelona remain the leading contenders for the Spanish crown in the La Liga betting odds, although a lot will hinge on whether the Argentine is able to maintain his high standards. Ernesto Valverde’s men were more reliant than ever on Messi last season due to the exit of Neymar. Luis Suarez was not quite at his best in the campaign and is also entering the back nine of his career. Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho and Ousmane Dembele arrived last term to offset the departure of Neymar.
However, neither of the additions offer the amount of goals needed to supplement Messi and Suarez in attack. To lengthen his career the 31-year-old has to have someone in the attacking third of the pitch to ease the burden. Barcelona were handed a frightening look at what could happen if they fail to recruit successfully. Messi cannot maintain the levels of goals that he has been scoring into his mid-thirties. The Catalan club will have to act to ease the pressure on him to ensure that they do not go the same way as Argentina and their failure at the 2018 World Cup.