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30 Jun 2018

Time is, however, running out for Messi to taste glory at a World Cup finals

There is only so much Lionel Messi can do on his own. Messi was the man whose hat-trick against Ecuador meant Argentina would be at the World Cup in Russia.

He was also the man who scored that wonderful goal against Nigeria in the group stages that inspired his team-mates to a win that got them to the last-16.

But in Kazan it all came to a quite predictable end. What didn't come to an end was Messi's goal drought in the knockout stages of a World Cup finals. Eight appearances and no goals. You wonder now just whether that landmark goal will ever arrive. He will be 35 when the World Cup begins in Qatar.

Honestly, he never stood a chance against a France side that finally came to life. A team that isn't reliant on one player, as Argentina are.

That, for too long, has been the problem, as well as odd choices of selection by head coach Jorge Sampaoli. Placing so much responsibility on one player is never wise but that's what Sampaoli did.

It made France's task of identifying how to approach the game, particularly from a defensive point of view, quite easy.

Blaise Matuidi was the first to put doubt into Messi's mind. He needed three minutes to leave his mark, sending Messi to the ground with a cynical challenge.

Matuidi wasn't the only France player who would be on his case. N'Golo Kante, with Paul Pogba next to him in a holding midfield partnership, kept guard. Kante quickly worked out what Messi's strategy would be.

Lining up in an attacking three with Cristian Pavon on the left and Angel Di Maria on the right, Messi was expected to fall a touch behind both wingers before picking the right pass forward.

That Argentina persisted with that approach for so long gave perhaps another insight into Sampaoli's flawed tactics. The coach denied suggestions before the game that Messi had been in charge of tactics in the pivotal win over Nigeria.

But it is difficult to argue that Messi doesn't have an influence when on the field. Di Maria and Pavon were moving wider and wider apart. After half an hour of play — following Antoine Greizmann's scored penalty — Messi appeared frustrated.

A few minutes later he delivered instructions of his own. He urged Di Maria and Pavon to move into more central positions while Messi positioned himself even deeper.

It drew Matuidi and Pogba further away from the France defence and Argentina profited soon after through Di Maria's thundering strike. Messi gave the former Manchester United player a kiss on the cheek. His very own seal of approval. Gracias.

But this wasn't a performance from Messi that you're likely to see from him in a Barcelona shirt. And that isn't meant to be an insult. He had to change his way of thinking, cut out the runs into the penalty area and focus playing the ball 40 yards from goal.

In the first half he touched the ball just once in the France box. He also managed to complete just one dribble and got no shots away.

That would change. Three minutes into the second half and it was Messi's shot from range that Mercado directed past France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

But that was perhaps the last time Argentina would dare to dream - even when Messi set up Sergio Aguero to score in the 93rd minute and the frantic 120 seconds that followed.

Messi is unlikely to tell you, but even he, a player who is capable of something very special, must have known it was all over once Kylian Mbappe had scored his second goal to make it 4-2.

He looked down to the ground and let out a sigh. He tried one last time to make an impact, but fell to the floor after scuffing a right-foot effort. The final whistle went and he trudged off towards the dressing rooms all alone. Another dream over. Another tournament where simply too much had been expected of him and nobody else.

Having come so close four years ago, the World Cup trophy now looks further away from him than ever before.

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