LONDON – Lionel Messi took a long time to reproduce his best Barcelona club form for Argentina but when he did it was an explosion.
His hat-trick in a remarkable 4-3 friendly win over arch-rivals Brazil in New Jersey on Saturday took his tally for the national side to 26 goals in 70 matches and he saved the best until last.
His third goal, six minutes from time at Meadowlands Stadium, was a classic sealed with a trademark run and unstoppable shot into the top corner of the goal from outside the penalty area.
The little ace has not always had it so good. He has had to overcome criticism, some of it severe and even nasty, from fellow Argentines who accused him of being a Catalan and lacking passion for his country.
He never played first division soccer in Argentina, having moved to Barcelona in his early teens, but fans were forgetting that he helped his country’s under-20s win the World Youth Cup in 2005.
This year he has scored seven goals in three internationals and while his first two hat-tricks for Argentina have been in friendlies, three goals against five times world champions Brazil is always special.
He is now Argentina’s fourth highest scorer behind Gabriel Batistuta (56), Hernan Crespo (35) and Diego Maradona (34) with potentially another decade in front of him in top class soccer.
“”Luckily (Messi) is Argentine and we can enjoy him,” said coach Alejandro Sabella.
“”He’s been going through great moments for quite some time, he won the last three Ballons d’Or in Europe and he’s delighting us with great performances.
“”We try to play a different game from Barcelona, more vertical, because we don’t have the Barcelona players to play their game,” Sabella said by way of explaining that Messi is finding his place and style in the Argentina team.
Making Messi captain may have been the key, Sabella having done so as soon as he took charge last August following Argentina’s disappointing Copa America on home soil.
Carlos Bilardo did the same with Maradona when he began preparing a team for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, which Argentina won.
Messi scored a crucial equaliser in a 2-1 away win over Colombia in a qualifier in November and followed that with his first hat-trick in February’s friendly 3-1 away win over Switzerland.
By the time Argentina crashed Ecuador 4-0 in a World Cup qualifier at the River Plate stadium nine days ago with a rampant Messi one of four different scorers, he was enjoying unprecedented rapport with an appreciative home crowd.
Sabella is building a team around Messi for the 2014 finals in Brazil while his ace leads a world class attack that compensates for frailties in defence.
Some may argue that Messi has already cemented a place among the all time greats even if he never wins the World Cup, while others believe he needs to do that.
Messi has said it is his biggest goal and that he has dreamt of it happening.