Far from the subdued, desolate figure he has cut for Barcelona in recent months, Lionel Messi was back to his vociferous best this week in Argentina’s colours.
The Albiceleste captain's transformation from shrinking violet on the pitch to snarling porteño cabbie stuck in rush hour traffic has been gestating for some time now, and not even 90 lung-busting minutes in La Paz slowed him down as he launched into a furious slanging match with Bolivia captain Marcelo Martins and the hosts' fitness coach after the final whistle sounded. “What's your problem, baldy?” he seethed at the latter, while also making reference to a particularly private area of the coach's mother's anatomy.
It is the kind of intensity that has been asked of Messi throughout his time in the national team but which has only just started to come to the fore in the last few years, perhaps most memorably when he went toe-to-toe with Chile's Gary Medel in the 2019 Copa America. What will be of more interest for Argentina fans, though, is what he is showing on the pitch; and the evidence of Tuesday's hard-fought win over Bolivia was encouraging for all concerned on the away side.
Messi has often suffered in the altitude of La Paz, notably finding himself on the wrong end of a 6-1 thrashing back in 2009 and, eight years later, vomiting on the pitch as Argentina went down to another, albeit less humiliating reverse. This time round saw him with a new determination, haring across the pitch like a player 10 years his junior and forming a crucial part of the comeback from 1-0 down. Perhaps most encouraging for Argentina was that while he did play a key role, for once on the international stage – and, more recently, for his club too – the world's best footballer did not have to carry the effort on his own.
When Lautaro Martínez opened the scoring for the visitors with a bizarre tackle-block-shot the Inter star banished an astonishing, wholly unwelcome drought. Not since Ángel Di María on November 15, 2016 had an Argentina player aside from Messi managed to hit the net in a World Cup qualifier. In the intervening four years, seven-and-a-half games and 675 minutes of action the Albiceleste have gone through three coaches and scores of players, while coming perilously close to missing out on the 2018 finals in Russia.
Against Bolivia, though, both Martínez and substitute Joaquín Correa were on target, with the ex-Racing youngster turning provider for the crucial second goal. His contribution, combined with a stellar display from the tireless Exequiel Palacios, meant that for once Messi's talents were welcome but not crucial in Argentina's efforts – a huge breakthrough after years of dependency.
“The game, apart from the first 15 minutes, which I think almost always happens when we play here, for the rest we were the team that dominated, that knew exactly what game it was playing,” coach Lionel Scaloni beamed after the final whistle.
After last Thursday's muted performance against a doggedly negative Ecuador this historic win was just what Argentina needed, not just the result but the manner in which they approached the clash and attacked a Bolivia side that, while suffering huge problems both on and off the pitch, can never be written off in their elevated lair.
The Albiceleste thus picked up all six points from this most challenging of World Cup qualifying starts, overshadowed by Covid and the logistical headache of putting a team together at all. The team's rude health should not be overstated: the Ecuador clash showed Argentina's limitations in reaching the net, while on Tuesday Bolivia exposed their continuing defensive difficulties on more than one occasion. But the two wins met, if not exceeded expectations, and the possibility that Messi is now accompanied by team-mates who can also make the difference perhaps stands out as the most positive news of all.