Argentina's struggles raise possibility of a World Cup without Lionel Messi

He's widely regarded as one of the best ever to play the game but international football hasn't always been kind to Lionel Messi. Now his Argentina side are in serious danger of failing to qualify for Russia 2018.

"We cannot ask more of Lionel Messi. He had chances, created them," said Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli after his side's 0-0 home draw against Peru on Thursday. "Messi was very intense, the way we need him."

Even if the former Sevilla and Chile boss can't ask much more of his talisman, he surely can of the rest of his players. Argentina's star-studded squad have won just six of their 17 qualifiers to date, leaving them in sixth position in the South American qualifying section.

The Albiceleste almost certainly need to win their final qualifier game away to Ecuador on Tuesday to be in with a hope of booking passage to Russia. The top four teams in the section will qualify automatically while the team in fifth will face a playoff against New Zealand.

"All that was missing was a goal," continued Sampaoli, adding that he was "very confident in the fact that we'll be at the World Cup".

Sports | 12.08.2016

Struggles in scoring

Despite a squad that has such a wealth of attacking talent it can afford to name Juventus' Pablo Dybala on the bench and leave his clubmate Gonzalo Higuain out of the squad all together, a lack of potency has been a feature of Argentina's campaign.

Messi briefly retired from international football after this defeat against Chile

Only Bolivia, already eliminated, have scored fewer while rock-bottom Venezuela, with just one win from their 17 matches, have managed two more goals than Messi's men. Their fierce rivals Brazil have scored more than double their total.

Messi, who briefly retired from international football last year after a loss to Chile in the Copa America final only to return to the fold less than two months later, was the last Argentina player to score a goal back in March. The only other time they've found the net since then was a Rolf Feltscher own goal in their draw against Venezuela in September.

Media unimpressed

Reaction to the team's struggles have been predictably pained. "Will there be a World Cup without the world's best player?" asked Clarin newspaper on its website. 

 La Nacion's verdict was even more damning. That outlet likened the performance to "someone drowning". They have given up faith in Messi and his team-mates,saying: "We've got to this final match, begging for a miracle."

Like the coach though, the media wouldn't blame Messi. Regardless of the where the blame lies, there's a very real chance the 2018 World Cup could miss one of its two biggest stars. 

The best players never to win an international tournament

Lionel Messi

The Barcelona superstar has been the Albiceleste’s shining light since making his international debut eleven years ago. Despite the exceptional levels of success the Argentine had with his club, he couldn’t help his country to their first piece of silverware since 1993, failing to win in the Copa America final three times, and losing to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final.

The best players never to win an international tournament

Johan Cruyff

Another case of 'so near yet so far.' Cruyff, widely considered an all-time great, lost two consecutive World Cup finals, in 1974 and 1978. The Dutch legend did manage to get to third place in the 1976 European Championships, but he never got to replicate the success he had with both Ajax & FC Barcelona.

The best players never to win an international tournament

Zico

He may have been South American Player of the Year on three different occasions and World Player of the year once, but even though he scored a staggering 66 goals in 88 appearances with Brazil, Zico never got past the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

The best players never to win an international tournament

Raul

Raul has captained the Spanish national team and scored 44 goals in 102 appearances, but unfortunately for him, this was before La Roja started winning trophies for fun. His last international appearance was on 6 September 2006 against Northern Ireland, two years before his teammates went on to win the European Championship for the first time since 1964.

The best players never to win an international tournament

Ferenc Puskas

The Hungarian national team of the fifties, recognized as one of the best sides of all time, didn’t lost a match for four years - and Puskas was their main man. Then came along Helmut Rahn who scored twice to win the 1954 World Cup for West Germany against the Hungarians, leaving Puskas without any international accolades.

The best players never to win an international tournament

George Best

They used to say: “Maradona good, Pele better, George Best.” The Northern Ireland winger was one of the most talented footballers of all time and won a European Cup with his club Manchester United in 1968. However, Best did not win any international trophies for his country as Northern Ireland failed to qualify for any major tournaments during his career.

The best players never to win an international tournament

Eusebio

Many considered Eusebio to be the best player in the world after the 1966 World Cup, when his Portugal team finished in third place. But that was as close as he’s got to an international title. Luckily for him, he won many titles for his club Benfica, including ten league championships and a European Cup.

The best players never to win an international tournament

Stanley Matthews

'The Wizard of the Dribble' was the first recipient of the European Player of the Year award in 1956 and, incredibly, played in the English top flight until the age of 50. He only played in one World Cup in 1954, when England lost to defending champions Uruguay in the quarterfinals.

The best players never to win an international tournament

Paolo Maldini

His technique and positioning abilities were almost as phenomenal his looks... Paolo Maldini was one of the finest defenders of his time, but even though he managed to win many titles with his club AC Milan, he did not win any for his country Italy. He came close in 1994 when Brazil beat Italy on penalties in the final.

The best players never to win an international tournament

Uwe Seeler

Uwe Seeler played for Germany for 16 years, but only got as far as the final in 1966, where the West German team lost to England. His last international tournament was the 1970 World Cup, in which his country lost in the semis against Italy. Germany went back to winning ways two years later, winning Euro 1972 and the 1974 World Cup consecutively, but he was no longer part of the team.