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Messi can still become the hero for Argentina that he is for Barcelona

11:00 BST 11/10/2017
Lionel Messi Argentina
The 30-year-old led the Albiceleste to the World Cup with a superb hat-trick in Ecuador on Tuesday and now has his sights set on the biggest prize

The dream is still alive. Lionel Messi's senior career with Argentina has been fraught with some spectacular near misses, much sadness and plenty of frustration ever since the Barcelona forward made his international debut in 2005. But after another sublime showing on Tuesday night, it could yet enjoy a fitting finale.

Messi led Argentina to an under-20 World Cup win in 2005 and a gold medal with an under-23 team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. With the senior side, however, he has played in seven major tournaments and lost four finals. The major prizes have remained elusive.

Senior players like Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria have long said that they would consider it a failure if this great generation of Argentina players cannot win a major trophy, yet on Tuesday night that same group was in danger of suffering an even more humiliating outcome - missing out on the World Cup altogether.

After the disappointing draw at home to Peru on Friday, Argentina found themselves in sixth place in the CONMEBOL standings with one round of matches remaining and only a win at altitude in Ecuador would guarantee a place in Russia - or at least a play-off against New Zealand.

The omens were not good. Argentina had scored just two goals in qualifying in 2017: a Messi penalty against Chile and an own-goal versus Venezuela. Of all 10 teams in the qualifying group, only Bolivia had netter fewer than the Albiceleste.

The pressure was on coach Jorge Sampaoli, brought in amid much fanfare to lead Argentina to the World Cup at the end of a complicated campaign that had started under Gerardo Martino and stuttered during Edgardo Bauza's short spell in charge. But more than anyone else, the spotlight shone on one man: Messi.

That is nothing new. Ever since his international debut, the Barcelona forward has had to deal with a huge and often unreasonable level of expectation in his Argentina career - especially over the past five tournaments.

At the 2006 World Cup, Messi was still young and appeared mainly as a substitute, not making it off the bench at all in Argentina's quarter-final defeat to Germany on penalties. A year later, he scored a wonderful chip against Mexico in the semi-finals of the Copa America in Venezuela, but missed out on the trophy in a 3-0 loss to Brazil in the final.

The gold medal in China came the following summer and that brought satisfaction in his homeland, yet it was an under-23 team that was supposed to go on to achieve greater things. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, however, a 4-0 loss to Germany in the last eight brought hopes a victory to an abrupt end for Diego Maradona's side. And Messi, despite notching several assists, ended the tournament without a goal to his name.

The Copa America in Argentina a year later was another opportunity for the Albiceleste and also Messi, but again the Barca forward - so successful at club level by now with three Champions League wins to his name and also two Ballons d'Or - failed to score as the host nation beat only Costa Rica, drawing with both Bolivia and Colombia in the group and losing out to Uruguay in a penalty shootout in the quarter-finals.

Coach Sergio Batista stepped down after that and Alejandro Sabella took over. Finally, there was some continuity and Argentina arrived at the World Cup in Brazil as genuine contenders. Ultimately, however, the competition ended in more heartbreak for Messi et al as they lost the final to Germany in extra-time. Messi received the award for the tournament's best player, but is was scant consolation.

Defeat to Chile on penalties in the final of the 2015 Copa America in Santiago brought yet more pain and a repeat of that disappointment - including a Messi miss in the shootout - in the Copa America Centenario in the United States was too much to take for the five-time Ballon d'Or winner.

"It's a difficult moment to analyse," a distraught Messi said afterwards as he announced his international retirement. "The first thing that comes into my head is that it's over. For me the national team is over. It has been four finals. It was what I most wanted. It didn't work out. I think that's it. It's what I feel now, what I think. There is great sadness. I missed the penalty, that's it."

It wasn't, though. Messi returned just two months later as Bauza took over, only to be sacked eight months on, and in Sampaoli, he looked to finally have a top-level coach he needed to match his ambitions at international level.

In the end, it was too close for comfort as Sampaoli's side flirted with disaster and were behind within 40 seconds in Ecuador on Tuesday night, but three super strikes by Messi (two teed up by a much-improved Di Maria) ensured the Albiceleste a place in Russia next summer and even though there is much work to be done, Argentina will be a contender again.

"If we all go hand in hand, everything will be easier," Messi said on Tuesday night. "It was unfair what happened in the World Cup and the (last) two Copa Americas. We ended up suffering to enter this World Cup and hopefully we will get it once and for all. The team will change, there will be another and it will grow."

With Barcelona, he has won it all and is considered the finest footballer in the history of the Catalan club. With Argentina, he has 61 goals and a record 21 in World Cup qualifiers, along with an Olympic gold, but still no major title to his name despite so many near misses.

In Russia next summer, a date with destiny awaits and Messi's long-suffering story with his national team may yet have the happy ending it so richly deserves.