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Two up front, or three? It is all a little bit Messi . . .

THE course of true love never did run smooth for Lionel Messi and Argentina.

DIFFERENCE OF OPINION: Lionel Messi and coach Alejandro Sabella disagreed with how the team was set up. Picture: PA
DIFFERENCE OF OPINION: Lionel Messi and coach Alejandro Sabella disagreed with how the team was set up. Picture: PA

Looks like it never really will. Sure, we all aware of how leaving his homeland for Barcelona aged 13 and never playing the professional game in his homeland has led to accusations of him not being Argentinian enough. We know he is unlikely to replace Diego Maradona, flawed and emotional and unpredictable like them, in the heart of the man in the street.

Yet, it seemed, from a distance, like he was getting on better than ever with his compatriots as they came together to pursue that midsummer night's dream of a World Cup triumph in the Maracana, the almost-mythical cathedral of Brazilian football.

That was until the unexpectedly explosive fall-out from the Albiceleste's 2-1 win over Bosnia in the opening match of Group F.

Messi scored a wonderful goal to put his side 2-0 ahead in the second half, but they were, bearing in mind much of the pre-tournament hype, deeply disappointing. When he sat down to comb over the match and make it clear he did not agree with the 5-3-2 formation employed at the beginning of hostilities by head coach Alejandro Sabella, a media storm rapidly developed.

Sergio Aguero was isolated throughout the opening period on Sunday. Messi had to drop desperately deep to get a touch of the ball and, surrounded by blue shirts, was unable to do anything with it. Even though an own goal by Senad Kolasinac had given them a fortunate early lead, Argentina did not gain any kind of grip on the game until Gonzalo Higuain was introduced to the play at half-time and the team returned to its more familiar 4-3-3.

There can be no question that Messi and Sabella did not see eye-to-eye over the tactics. Sections of the Argentinian media reported, however, that the Barcelona forward and some other players went as far as telling him he had to change things in the dressing-room during the interval.

Denials have since been issued over Sabella being press-ganged into reviewing his approach after 45 miserable minutes, but the impression of unbreakable togetherness around the camp has been altered somewhat.

Javier Mascherano, Messi's long-term team-mate at Barcelona, is the latest to have been dragged into the issue. He was clear when asked whether Sabella consulted with any of the players, particularly Messi, at half-time over the subject of bringing Higuain and Fernando Gago into the fray.

"No," replied Mascherano, set to earn his 100th cap against Iran in Belo Horizonte today. "Alejandro saw it and he took the decision.

"I know Leo very well. He would never pick one player above the other. It's not his nature. He would feel bad if he did it. There is a manager who decides and anything else would be disrespectful to Sabella. The truth is that the team is used to playing a certain way because we have used different tactics in 90% of our games.

"Yet, making two changes at half-time when you are in the lead in the first match of the World Cup deserves credit. It means we not only have an intelligent coach, but also an honest coach. He doesn't mind what people say and only cares for the good of the team."

Mascherano certainly does not want to risk the possibility of Messi being looked upon as some kind of brat, throwing his toys out of the pram when he is not given the freedom to play the way he demands.

"People have to know that Leo understands football," he said. "He is no idiot. He's not some kid who said: 'I want to play like this, that's that'."

It would be interesting, though, to know Sabello's private thoughts when Messi took his position in front of the Argentinian media and let rip. He is a guy who, generally, says little of interest, but he does know how to pick his moments.

"We are Argentina," stated Messi. "I think we need to look at ourselves first and not focus on the rival.

"I prefer 4-3-3 and I feel more comfortable with more players further forward. That's how we played in most of the friendlies and qualifiers. I was annoyed at not being able to play the game I had planned."

The remarks that hinted most strongly at some kind of disagreement with Sabella came when he was asked why he believed the head coach chose to open with such a cautious line-up.

"You have to ask Alejandro," replied Messi. "Maybe he was thinking he didn't want to let three points slip away."

Mascherano, with four years under his belt at Camp Nou, has an informative vantage point from which to evaluate Messi's difficulties with his nation of birth.

As Argentina's supporters have taken time to warm to him, those who watch him play his club football have become more protective and there was an outpouring of anger towards him last year after comments made by Sabella's daughter Vanessa on Argentinian radio.

She had already caused ructions when branding Messi "a choker" and accusing him of lacking "heart, blood and leadership." Hard on the heels of her father's team securing their place at the World Cup finals, she was suitably unrepentant.

"He is a cold fish," she said. "Sometimes, I wonder why he doesn't do what he does for Barcelona for his country."

Messi's call for three up front has already won support from the public and influential team-mates. Whatever happened against Bosnia, only the foolish would bet against Messi having Higuain and Aguero beside him today.

He usually gets what he wants.

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