Lionel Messi and Argentina will attempt to start putting their Copa America heartache behind them when taking on Bolivia in a friendly in Houston on Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET. Looking to win the country’s first international title in more than 20 years, Argentina went down to a penalty shootout defeat to hosts Chile in the final of South America’s showpiece event.
Coming just a year after Argentina lost the World Cup final to Germany in extra time, it has been a painful time for a country that has failed to turn a hugely talented generation of players into silverware. Messi is, of course, the most gifted of them all, and, perhaps because of that and the fact that he moved to Barcelona at such an early age, it is he who has faced the brunt of the criticism from a demanding Argentinian public.
Messi, the Argentina captain, was brilliant in laying on three assists in an emphatic 6-1 win over Paraguay in the Copa America semifinals. Yet he couldn’t make a decisive impact in the final, as indeed he couldn’t at the same decisive stage of the World Cup. In fact, despite scoring 58 goals for Barcelona last season, he has failed to score from open play in a competitive match for his country since the group stages in Brazil.
But the forward has received strong support from fellow members of the Argentina squad, including his Barcelona teammate Javier Mascherano, who feels he has been unfairly criticized.
"I couldn't stand being Messi,” Mascherano said, reports the Daily Mirror. “You have to be special to be in his place. It's always easy to talk about others before talking about yourself.
“What you have to take into account is that Leo keeps coming, he doesn't hide. And he still does even when his wife is about to give birth. We know the obligation that we have because we haven't achieved anything for so long and that makes the defeats even harder to take. But we have to live with it and try to make sure that it doesn't become a habit to lose in finals."
Following the Copa America, there had even been speculation that Messi would take a break from the Argentina team. Yet he is in Houston and, although he may not start against Bolivia, coach Tata Martino has said that he will feature at some stage. Martino is without Ángel di María, with the attacker continuing to build his fitness at new club Paris Saint-Germain. Di María’s club teammate Javier Pastore as well as Manchester City defender Pablo Zabaleta will be missing through injury, both for the contest with Bolivia and against Mexico next Tuesday.
But with the matches acting as final preparations for the start of South America’s World Cup qualifying next month, Martino has a strong squad at his disposal. Argentina’s opponents will also be aiming to get into shape for the beginning of a grueling two-year campaign for Russia 2018. Bolivia will be attempting to make it to their first World Cup since traveling to the United States in 1994. And, while they perhaps lack the pedigree of that generation of players, this summer’s Copa America at least offered some encouragement.
Chiefly, it saw Bolivia win their first match away from the high altitude at home in more than eight years. An upset 3-2 victory over Ecuador coupled with a scoreless result with Mexico was enough to send them through the quarterfinals. Yet their limitations were exposed when going down 3-1 to Peru, as they were in a 5-0 defeat to Chile in the group stage.