The discussion over Lionel Messi’s contribution in defence verges on the ridiculous says his former coach at Paris Saint-Germain Mauricio Pochettino. Argentina will appear in their sixth World Cup final on Sunday against France, aiming to get their hands on the trophy for the first time since 1986. What ever happens on Sunday, Messi will claim yet another record – he will overtake Lothar Matthäus to become the player with the most individual appearances during the World Cup finals. The PSG star is currently tied on 25 appearances with Matthäus, who like Messi, starred in five editions of the tournament (1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998). Messi could become the first player to record 20 goal contributions in the competition – he is currently on 11 goals and eight assists.
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The Argentina captain started the tournament slowly, with some observers criticising his work rate, but he has shone in the knockout stage. Former Argentina international Pochettino, who coached Messi at PSG until his dismissal earlier this year, scoffed at the player’s detractors and compared Messi to two icons of the game not renowned for their defensive work.
“Honestly, I think the debate about Messi’s defensive work is so stale, almost silly,” he wrote in The Athletic. “You cannot pretend that [Diego] Maradona or Pelé – along with Messi, the most important players in football, were focused on trying to win the ball back. He can’t participate in that. He just needs the others to run for him. He doesn’t need to press. When you have Messi, you need the other players to understand that they have to get the ball and give it to him so he can conserve his energy and then be decisive, as shown.”
Argentina, tough to break down
Argentina’s run to the final has not been all about Messi, though, with Lionel Scaloni’s side proving resolute in defence. They have restricted their opponents to just 5.7 shots per game – fewer than any other side. Indeed, they have not faced above 0.6 expected goals against in any of their six games so far. Pochettino believes that defensive solidity and work ethic has been crucial in allowing Messi to flourish.
“Of course, Argentina need Messi, but Messi needs the other 10 players to fight for him at all times,” he added. “That’s one of the keys to this team: they all believe that playing for Messi, they can win the World Cup. You can see that the players give 120 per cent to achieve this. Different players: [Rodrigo] De Paul, [Alexis] Mac Allister, [Enzo] Fernández, [Julián] Álvarez, they give everything they have and more, and they do it for Messi. They give everything because it’s their dream, they are so close, and when they have Messi, they know that everything is possible. That’s the most important thing about this Argentina team, and the reason why they are in the final. It’s because the players fully understand their role. When you have Messi in your team, you have to run for him. And when you have the ball, you have to give it to him as soon as possible so that he can create something. So, the players know what they have to do at all times: to give Messi everything he needs to be decisive.”