Lionel Messi likely to have a big role in shaping Argentina's World Cup squad
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli is off for another round of "shuttle diplomacy", where he will travel through Europe meeting with his key players. The first port of call, logically enough, is Barcelona for a sit down with Lionel Messi.
It is entirely likely that their chat will not be limited to a coach asking a player about his current physical condition. The chances are that the two of them will sit down and, in effect, pick the squad. It is a perfectly reasonable deduction that Messi, Argentina's star player, will also have a huge say in selecting the members of the team.
Sampaoli hinted at this last month, when he accepted that the team belonged more to Messi than it did to him. This is backed up by two related and undeniable facts.
The first is that few teams have ever been as dependent on one player as Argentina have become on Messi. Argentina would almost certainly not have made it to Russia had Messi not almost immediately gone back on his decision to retire from the national team -- announced in New Jersey in 2016 after yet another defeat in a final. During the eight rounds of qualifiers that Messi missed, Argentina picked up just seven points. In the 10 matches that he has played, they earned 21. He scored seven goals, while none of his teammates managed more than two.
The second unpalatable truth is that Sampaoli has not been able to find a blend or a structure to his side. A question was left hanging when he took the job last year: Did Argentina have the defensive resources for his customary bold attacking approach? The answer so far has been a resounding negative. Last November, with a back-three formation, Argentina lost 4-2 in a collapse against Nigeria, who they will be facing in the World Cup. Last month, with a back four, they went down 6-1 to Spain.
Messi was missing on both occasions. The only morale boost possible for Argentina is the view that things might have turned out differently had he been on the field. But who should play around him? What structure and which players will give Argentina both a solid defense and options around Messi to help break down the opposition? It would seem fair to assume that player and coach will be discussing these very questions.
This gives Messi a power he has never wielded in any of his previous World Cups.
In 2006, of course, he was just a kid; still more of a secret weapon than an important voice in the squad.
By 2010, he had already touched greatness with Barcelona. On national team duty in South Africa, however, he had a problem. It is perhaps harsh to say that then-coach Diego Maradona was jealous of him. But there is no doubt Maradona favored Carlos Tevez.
Three years older than Messi, Tevez had been allowed to think of himself as the great saviour, as Maradona reborn, until Messi came on the scene. Tevez led the attack through much of the troubled 2010 qualification campaign, and by his own admission, had a nightmare. He scored one goal, and was sent off twice in the first half. Quite justifiably, he lost his place in the team.
But come the World Cup, Maradona could not resist the temptation. He saw so much of himself in the stocky kid from the wrong side of the tracks who was an idol with Boca Juniors. It made little sense, it was not deserved and it unbalanced the side, but Maradona found space for Tevez in his starting lineup, and diminished Messi's importance.
It was a predictable failure. A year later, coach Sergio Batista made another doomed attempt to incorporate Tevez in the 2011 Copa America. That failed too. Batista was sacked, and replacement Alejandro Sabella had watched and learned. There would be no place for Tevez on his watch.
But that did not mean, as some claimed, that Messi was all powerful. Sabella made that clear when he left midfielder Ever Banega out of the 2014 squad. It was a gesture of independence, a message that the coach was his own man and therefore not afraid to overlook one of Messi's favourites.
The pair were also on different song sheets after Argentina's tournament debut against Bosnia and Herzegovina. After playing an open 4-3-3 in qualification, Sabella sensed that his stars were not fit enough for such a bold game plan, and began with a cautious back-three system. Argentina produced a very disjointed first half, and swapped back to normal at the interval. After the match, Messi said that he would not like to play in that formation again.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision (and subsequent events in the tournament would seem to suggest that Sabella was correct) things would seem to be different now. There seems little chance of Argentina going into Russia 2018 with a team selection or a game plan that Messi has not approved.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.