As Argentina progress into the knockout stages of the Copa America Centenario, they will look for a form of inspiration. That form of inspiration will be the man that is Lionel Messi, who is also on a mission to prove he can lead his team at the national level and cement his legacy as one of the greatest players of all time.
Two years of heartbreak
As the famous saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words". It is a saying that often holds through any situation and sports is no different. It is an image that is sketched in many die-hard soccer fans brains and especially the fans of the Argentina National Team. The famous photo of Lionel Messi walking past the World Cup trophy as he receives his second place medal. Arguably the world's greatest player walking past the greatest prize in sports. This was the closest Argentina had been to winning the World Cup since their run back in 1990, four years after the famous victory in 1986. Messi is not a man of many emotions, but it didn't take an expert to see the hurt and despair on his face as he walked past the gold trophy which was lifted by Germany thanks to the efforts of Mario Gotze. After achieving nearly everything at the club level with FC Barcelona, Messi once again walked away from a major national tournament without the main prize.
He had a chance at redemption a year later at the Copa America in Chile as he took his team to the final once again. There against the host nation he and his team battled with a motivated Chilean team led by his former teammate at Barcelona, Alexis Sanchez. The two teams battled for 120 minutes and went to the dreaded penalty kicks. Argentina ended up taking three penalties in the shootout. Messi took the first one and made it. But it was the only one that Argentina made as Ever Banega and Gonzalo Higuain both missed their efforts. Then Sanchez walked up to the spot and chipped it past Argentina keeper Sergio Romero who went the opposite way. The dream of winning their first major tournament since 1993 was over once again and it was heartbreak once again.
This is Argentina's tournament to lose
Heading into this Copa America Centenario, the favorites were again Messi and Argentina. He was healthy and ready to go and was surrounded by a star-studded cast. Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega held the midfield in order with Augusto Fernandez in for relief as well. Angel Di Maria was coming off a fantastic season for PSG and was also healthy once again. Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, the strikers, were coming off 25+ goal seasons. This was the team to beat. But Messi getting hurt weeks before the tournament caused some shake up. Would he be fit for the group stage and eventually the knockouts? That was the question for Argentina two weeks before the tournament started. We already saw Luis Suarez be ruled out of the group stage by his country Uruguay and with FC Barcelona also not exactly happy with their players playing in summer tournaments, especially after playing in one last year, the thought was that Argentina would not use Messi very much. It cast some doubt around the team as they headed into their first group stage game against Chile.
The doubt was all wasted away within the first 45 minutes as goals from Di Maria and Banega gave Argentina a 2-0 lead that turned into three points. It was a perfect start to the tournament for Argentina. It got even better against Panama in Chicago when Nicolas Otamendi's header gave Argentina a 1-0 lead. Then in the 60th minute he arrived. It was his first competitive game in the United States and Messi made it count. He casually pushed three goals into the back of the Panama net in 19 minutes and took the game by the throat. Capped off by an amazing free kick which he made look absolutely routine. It was a sign that Messi looked as good as usual and with him in that type of form, Argentina looked unstoppable.
Now the pressure is back to win the whole Copa America. Colombia will have to deal with going through a tougher road thanks them finishing behind the United States in Group A. Mexico looked great in the first two games but they are prone to slip ups. Uruguay and Brazil both are out of the tournament as they both lost in the group stage. Chile, who won last year's tournament, haven't looked like the same team that has lifted the trophy a year prior. If there ever was a time for Argentina to win the Copa, it's now. They are talented enough to win without getting some help from other teams but when they get help, they must take advantage of it.
The one big knock on Messi's career has been his struggles at the national level. Unlike some of the greats like Pele and Maradona, he has failed to win while playing for his country. Now he has a chance to put most of that to rest and there is no better time to do it than now.