[BRAZIL 2014]Lionel Messi will never rise to the level of popularity where Diego Maradona sits among Argentines, but at least he might escape from the shadow of El Pelusa if Argentina beats Germany in Sunday's World Cup final. Messi does not need to score -- after all, Maradona did not score when Argentina beat Germany, 3-2, in the 1986 World Cup final -- but he does need to step up his game after a disappointing semifinal against the Netherlands.
Messi is only 27, so he probably has one more World Cup in him, but he will not get a better chance to win the World Cup than now. In four years, the World Cup will be back in Europe, where Argentina has not done well. Except for the 1990 tournament, where Argentina lost to Germany in the final, it has never gone past the semifinals in Europe.
The 2014 World Cup has been a mixed bag for Messi. He was his dominant self, scoring in all three group games, including the late winner against Iran in Argentina's second match. But since then, he's gone silent, contributing an assist on Angel Di Maria's overtime winner against Switzerland in the round of 16 but nothing else.
Messi was nowhere to be found against the Netherlands on Wednesday, never entering the Dutch penalty area with the ball until he stepped up to take Argentina's first penalty kick in the shootout.
"We didn't see Messi," said Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal bluntly.
What happened to the Messi we're used to seeing at Barcelona, where he has averaged 52 goals a season over the last six seasons?
For one, he is not at Barca. He doesn't have the supporting cast he's had at Barca -- Argentina has no creator to match the likes of Xavi or Andres Iniesta -- and even Barca opponents rarely bunker down quite Argentina's opposition has at the World Cup. That began in the group stage, where Iran was within a few minutes of earning an improbable 0-0 tie, and continued into the semifinals against the Netherlands, which always had three or four players with their sights on Messi.
That begs the question, what were Messi's teammates doing? Di Maria missed the semifinal with a quad injury and may not be fit in time for the final. Sergio Aguero returned late in the Netherlands match but was ineffective after missing the first two games of the group stage with the same injury. Gonzalo Higuainplayed well against Belgium, scoring the winning goal, but he was invisible against the Dutch.
The bottom line: Argentina has managed to score just one goal in regulation in the 270 minutes of the knockout phase.
If Argentina wins the World Cup, it won't be the first team that struggled to get to the final. Advancing in the knockout stage of the World Cup is simply a matter of survival. In the previous seven tournament that featured three rounds before the final, not one champion has matched Germany's seven goals against Brazil in its three knockout matches en route to the final.
The closest any team came was Italy with six goals -- two of them in overtime against host Germany -- in 2006. Spain never scored more than one goal in any game after surviving the group stage four years ago. The difference, of course, is that Spain was in a class by itself. You can't say that about Argentina.
As the final approaches, the big worry among Argentines, though, must be the condition of Messi. The Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo quoted Messi's father, Jorge, as saying, “He is exhausted and feels as if his legs weigh 100 kilos each."
For all the pre-tournament concerns about the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi's No. 1 rival on the global stage, the Portugal star certainly looked as fit or fitter in his last two games at the World Cup than Messi has.
On Sunday, Argentina will have enough trouble matching up against Germany, which is going from strength to strength, without having to worry about Messi's condition.