Lionel Messi has experienced this scenario before. To be more precise, four times. His chances of returning to this stage are slim now that he is 35. On the eve of Argentina's opening match against Saudi Arabia at the Fifa World Cup on Tuesday, the attention will be focused on their remarkable number 10. His Copa America success last year has increased the pressure on him to lead La Albiceleste to World Cup glory. In 2006, he was an integral part of the team, but four years later, he would become a catalyst for the team. Despite this, even the best player in the world could not overcome the sloppy approach to coaching employed by the late Diego Maradona.

There was a feeling that Messi left something out there at the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil. With the likes of Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, and Sergio Aguero supporting the boss, Argentina had found a way to win games, even without being at their best. As they underwhelmed when it really mattered, they scored only twice in the knockout stage – neither thanks to Messi – and Higuain’s shocking miss in the final was the enduring image, as he tear up the silver medal in frustration rather than the famous gold trophy in frustration. Messi's chance seemed gone by 2018. It was clear from Argentina's tepid 1-1 draw with Iceland, 3-0 loss to Croatia, and chaotic 2-1 win over Nigeria that they were a mess under Jorge Sampaoli. No matter how many goals they scored, it felt as though the Argentines would concede one more than they scored in their 4-3 thriller with France. Back in 2011, many fans would probably say it was one tournament too far for Messi to wear the blue and white shirt in Qatar. However, it turns out that he might have as good a chance of capturing the most coveted prize in the game this year as he ever has.

A little more than 12 months after winning the first continental title in 28 years, Argentina added the Finalissima trophy and boasts arguably a better-prepared squad than any in recent World Cups. Moreover, they have a Lionel Messi far removed from the one who joined PSG in the summer of 2021 with tears still in his eyes from his Barcelona exit and scored just six league goals. Having already scored eight times in this Ligue 1 campaign, he arrives in the Middle East looking much like he did in 2014. Despite not winning the World Cup, Argentina can't be the shambles they were in 2010 and 2018, nor the unfinished article of 2006 and 2014. All 26 of their players are in a major European league, including backup keeper Franco Armani, while they have a great mix of experience and youth with up-and-coming players like Manchester City's Julian Alvarez, Benfica's Enzo Fernandez, and Brighton & Hove Albion's Alexis Mac Allister. Despite being here four times before, Messi might just get that big shot he's been longing for since he was a teenager.

By Rashmi Goel

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