As he generally does, Lionel Messi scored one goal and assisted two more in Barcelona's Copa del Rey Final victory over Sevilla. So why has he never done that in a final for Argentina?
One man dominated the headlines after Barcelona’s Copa del Rey Final triumph against Sevilla on Saturday night, and for once it was not Lionel Messi.
Instead, Andres Iniesta was the man in the spotlight after taking a starring role in his team’s 5-0 cup final victory, providing the mercurial midfielder with a wonderful way to bow out in his last final before an end-of-career move to China.
And it’s absolutely right that Iniesta receives his moment in the sun. It goes without saying that he is an icon and a legend, winning 31 trophies at club level (soon to be 32 when this season’s La Liga is confirmed) and also becoming a national hero by scoring the winning goal for Spain in the final minute of the World Cup Final in 2010.
Iniesta is a magician, and his departure is another sad stage in the gradual disintegration of the magnificent Barcelona team fashioned by Pep Guardiola. Key components such as Carles Puyol, Xavi, Dani Alves and now Iniesta have all gone, leaving Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique as the sole remnants of a team that captured the world’s imagination.
But life is change, people move on, nothing stays the same forever, and Barcelona will continue without Iniesta – they have no choice, and we should all just try to enjoy Iniesta's final few weeks with the club.
It was fitting that Iniesta's goal came from a Messi pass, and if you look below the headlines from Saturday night’s game in Madrid, and examine the match itself, it is abundantly clear that Messi played a fundamentally vital role in his team’s victory – perhaps the most fundamental of all players.
He scored the second goal to give Barca a comfortable cushion, then delivered a brilliant assist for Luis Suarez to net the third, and then made another superb pass to tee up Iniesta for his goal for 4-0.
And that was just the key moments. More than that, Messi was – as always – the biggest instigator of his team’s attacking play and the greatest threat to Sevilla throughout the game, constantly providing a link between midfield and attack, striking fear into the hearts of opposition players and supporters every time he received the ball.
He also showed his selfless team ethic on a couple of occasions, firstly by allowing Philippe Coutinho to take the penalty for the final goal, and then by insisting that Iniesta went to collect the trophy alone rather than accompanying him as vice-captains normally would, thus ensuring the soon-to-be departing midfielder didn’t have to share the spotlight during the trophy lift moment.
So it was another outstanding display by Messi, which should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody. Of course he scored – he always does. Of course he assisted his teammates – he always does.
Messi has nearly always delivered in finals. In the Champions League, he scored a superb header against Manchester United in 2009, skidded home a fierce low missile against the same opposition two years later, and had a fierce shot which was saved for Suarez to score the crucial go-ahead goal against Juventus in 2015.
In the Copa del Rey, Messi has now scored in three of the last four finals, including perhaps his best-ever goal – if ever such a thing can be decided – with an outrageous solo strike against Athletic Bilbao in 2015.
He has also netted in three FIFA Club World Cup Finals (in 2015, 2011 and an extra time winner in 2009), two UEFA Super Cup Finals (in 2011 and 2015) and is the all-time leading scorer in the Spanish Super Cup with 13 goals in 17 appearances.
In short, Messi generally scores and assists goals in cup finals because they are games of football, and that’s what he invariably does in games of football.
Really, Messi’s record in finals is pretty much in line with his record in other big games he’s played. You could look at his performances in semi-finals (remember those goals against Bayern Munich in 2015? That ridiculous dribble at the Bernabeu in 2011?) and find similar stats. Or you could look at El Clasicos, which always feel like finals, and see that his record is second to none.
So the way that he habitually contributes in finals, as he did in Saturday’s dismantling of hapless Sevilla, is really just par for the course.
There is, however, one exception, and you may have already worked out where this is all heading: he has never scored in any of his four finals for Argentina. Neither has he assisted a goal. Neither has his team scored a single goal…450 minutes (including extra time) of scoreless football, leading to losses in the Copa America against Brazil in 2007, and against Chile in 2015 and 2016, and of course in the 2014 World Cup Final against Germany.
Why is this? Why does Lionel Messi score or create goals in nearly every game he plays, but he has never done so in any of his four finals at senior international level?
There are many theories to answer this question. Some would argue that he ‘bottles it’ in big games at international level, claiming that he can’t deal with the pressure of delivering the goods when the whole world is watching.
But it’s easy to dismiss that argument. There’s no higher-profile occasion in football than El Clasico, and Messi has performed in those games better than anyone else in the fixture’s history. There could be no more pressured situation than a Champions League Final, and Messi has been decisive in each of the three of those he’s experienced.
It has also been said that Messi can’t deliver for Argentina because he’s not surrounded by the same quality of teammates that he enjoys at Barcelona. Take him away from the familiar and comfortable environment of Camp Nou and the teammates he has played alongside for years, they say, and he doesn’t find everything quite so easy.
That makes a certain amount of sense at first glance, but not much when you scratch beneath the surface. After all, Messi has been good enough with Argentina to become the country’s all-time leading goalscorer, and his teammates have been good enough to reach those four finals in the first place.
Very few players are as comfortable in their national teams as they are with their club sides – that’s just a perfectly natural consequence of spending less time together, and explains why international football is generally far inferior to club games in terms of attacking flair and creativity.
But perhaps the best way to rebuff claims that Messi is destined to forever fail in finals for Argentina is by pointing out that he has already succeeded in two: the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships Final, when he scored both goals from the penalty spot in a 2-1 victory over Nigeria, and the Gold Medal match at the 2008 Olympics, where he created the only goal for Angel Di Maria, again beating Nigeria.
Ok, those games weren’t at senior level, but for the players who were living the moment that really didn’t matter. For Messi, there had been no bigger game in his life until that point when he played in the youth final in 2005. At his age group, it was the World Cup and the incentive to win was as strong.
If he was a ‘bottler’ in finals for Argentina, surely he would have missed his penalty in the 75th minute when the score was tied at 1-1? But instead he rolled it low into the right corner, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way to give Argentina the trophy.
So where does that leave us? Nowhere, really, and maybe the only sensible explanation for Messi’s failure in those four finals is that it’s just a coincidence.
Even a player as good as Messi cannot be the deciding factor in every game he plays. Earlier this year, for example, Barcelona hosted Getafe in La Liga. They had lots of possession and chances against a clearly inferior opponent, but they couldn’t score and the game finished 0-0. Messi had come close on a few occasions, but this time his shots were saved. It happens; it’s football.
That draw with Getafe came during a run of five consecutive games at the start of February where Messi didn’t score. Did that mean anything? Did it mean that he was a bottler in February, or that he had a mental block against Getafe and Eibar? Of course not. It was just one of those things, and he ended the barren run with – at the time – perhaps Barcelona’s most important goal of the season by netting a late equaliser in the Champions League trip to Chelsea.
Sometimes even the best players lose. Sometimes even the greatest goalscorers fail to strike. It just happens to be that four of those games for Messi have been finals for Argentina, but that doesn’t mean we are forced to draw any long-term conclusions. If he played another one, there’s every chance he would score or create the winner, because that’s what he generally does.
Let’s just hope we have a chance to put that theory to the test. In Russia this summer would be nice.
Do you agree? Why has Messi failed in his four senior finals with Argentina? Have your say on Twitter @messiworldcup