Lionel Messi and Argentina closing in on record-breaking run with World Cup on horizon

Scaloni's side next face UAE in November friendly having gone 36 games unbeaten

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La Scaloneta will touch down in Abu Dhabi in six weeks time in pursuit of a world record. If the term ‘Scaloneta’ is still unfamiliar outside South America, it’s because it has come into use gradually and stealthily. It derives from Lionel Scaloni, the former full-back and now manager of Argentina, who is not the sort to demand historic achievements are named after him.

Yet the ‘Scaloneta’, the national team captained by Lionel Messi and managed by Scaloni, a stopgap appointment when he assumed the role four years ago, are slowly but surely looking like genuine candidates to win the World Cup, for which they will prepare in Abu Dhabi with a friendly against UAE.

If the Messi roadshow continues as it has this season, crowd control may be an issue. On Tuesday night in New Jersey, a spectator at Argentina’s 3-0 win over Jamaica ran on to the pitch, mid-game, and before stewards could apprehend him, had given Messi a pen to autograph the excited fan’s bare back.

Messi obliged, smiling, as he has been since he embarked on the 19th season of his senior career and began the countdown towards his fifth World Cup. Against Jamaica, he scored twice, having come on as a substitute with little over half an hour of the friendly remaining. It took his tally of goals from his last three Argentina appearances to nine.

On this sort of form, it does not seem fanciful that he could bring up his century of international goals before the end of 2022. He is on 90, with the prestigious UAE warm-up, and a possible seven matches in Qatar if La Scaloneta make it all the way to the final, ahead of him.

Scaloni needs two more unbeaten games to match the international record – 38 matches – for invincible runs and if most of that sequence has been put together against opponents outside the elite, it does include a Copa America final against Brazil and the June victory at Wembley over European champions Italy.

Argentina may not have a squad, man for man, to compare with the greatest of their history, but they have balance and confidence. Plus a beaming Messi, focused on what may well be his last chance, at 35, to lift the sport’s greatest prize.

Neymar celebrates after scoring for Brazil against Tunisia at the Parc des Princes in Paris. AFP

Argentina were among the high flyers from the last international pause in the hectic club calendar before World Cup squads are announced. Brazil also strengthened their arguments to be considered favourites, with their comfortable wins over Ghana and Tunisia, the latter game marred by someone in the crowd at the Parc des Princes throwing a banana at Richarlison.

The Tottenham Hotspur striker was meanwhile enhancing his status in the Brazil hierarchy of forwards: He has seven goals and two assists in his last six outings under Tite, the Brazil coach who considers his talent pool deep enough to have left out Arsenal’s in-form Gabriel Jesus.

Most of the so-called European heavyweights had mixed fortunes, but will have appreciated the competitive edge to their matches in the Uefa Nations League.

France must now begin the defence of their World Cup title with a single victory from their last six games, and concerns about the fitness of key men.

England 3 Germany 3: player ratings

Germany, world champions in 2014, have also won just one game in their Nations League group, although they will feel there is firepower in their side when manager Hansi Flick gets them to click: Their 1-0 home loss to Hungary last week was sandwiched between a 5-2 victory against Italy and a wild 3-3 draw with England.

England, finalists at the European championship 14 months ago, find themselves relegated from the top tier of the Nations League and, until the see-saw draw against the Germans, plodding gloomily towards Qatar.

When manager Gareth Southgate concluded that the sharp criticism following back-to-back defeats against Hungary and Italy had left “some young [players] needing help and guidance, thinking ‘What is this?’, he might have been glancing enviously at Spain, where a clutch of up-and-coming footballers brightened the outlook.

Three teenagers, Gavi, Pedri and Yeremy Pino, and 20-year-old Nico Williams helped push Spain into next year’s Nations League finals in dramatic circumstances, an 88th minute goal deflating Portugal and an exasperated Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was a good week for Croatia, the 2018 World Cup silver-medallists, and for the Netherlands and their veteran manager Louis van Gaal. Both qualified for the Nations League Final Four. That event, next June, seems distant and scarcely relevant – but a winning habit is something to cherish with Qatar 2022 just 52 days away.

Alvaro Morata, right, celebrates with teammate Nico Williams after scoring Spain's winner against Portugal in Braga. AFP
Updated: September 28, 2022, 2:29 PM
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