RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - After carrying Argentina on his back so many times Lionel Messi could be forgiven for having an off day but while his team mates earned high praise for Friday’s Copa America quarter-final win over Venezuela the captain did not look like his old self.
Argentina’s all-time top scorer often loses out to Diego Maradona in debates over who is the country’s best ever player due to his failure to inspire his nation to a major trophy.
While he usually looks to be playing on a different level to his international team mates, against Venezuela it was the five-times world player of the year who looked rusty, slow and the least likely to conjure up a moment of magic.
After four games at the Copa America, Messi has only scored once — from the penalty spot — and has not provided any assists, nor has he looked anything like the player who netted more goals than anyone in Europe in the last three seasons.
Argentina could certainly do with him rediscovering his form in their next game, a semi-final with tournament hosts and arch rivals Brazil.
Messi did play a supporting role in Argentina’s opening strike against Venezuela, whipping in a cross which Sergio Aguero sent towards goal and Lautaro Martinez flicked into the net with his heel, but it was the only memorable moment of an ineffective display.
His passing was sloppy, his shots were frequently blocked and never troubled Venezuela goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez, and he rarely managed to beat defenders as he usually does with such nonchalant ease.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni did not want to be drawn on Messi’s poor display in the post-game news conference but said his presence alone is good for the team.
“Messi’s contribution on the pitch is essential, if you could see what he gives us in the dressing room you’d think differently. I assure you it’s great to have him here,” Scaloni said.
When further pressed on Messi’s poor form, Scaloni replied curtly: “All there is to say about Leo is he’s the best in the world.”
The poor state of the playing surfaces in Brazil also seem to have taken their toll on Messi.
“The pitches here are shameful, the ball is like a rabbit, it can go anywhere,” he said.
“The conditions are very difficult and it’s very hard to dribble properly. This cannot go on.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford