- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 28, 2018

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Trailing 6-1, Lionel Messi had seen enough.

The injured Argentine left his seat overlooking the field at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the final minutes of Tuesday’s friendly match against Spain and headed inside. He didn’t miss much. It ended 6-1.

A nagging muscular problem stopped Messi from helping his team avoid a debacle that will magnify concerns about Argentina’s ability to finally win a World Cup with one of the best players ever.

Losing in Madrid to a Spain squad that looks as dominant as the 2010 world champion team could have been acceptable. But six goals are far too many for a group of players who must provide Messi with the supporting cast he needs to fill the biggest hole in his stupendous career.

“Spain slapped us around,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said. “Spain took advantage of our disorder and their goals fell fast.

“We must learn from all of this, even if the course of the match shouldn’t have resulted in such a lopsided score. We will keep working so that this doesn’t happen again in the World Cup.”

Following Sampaoli’s orders, Argentina tried to beat Spain at its own ball-possession game by pressing high up the field.

The decision to take the match to the Spaniards appeared to work at first. But after striker Gonzalo Higuain, who was back with Argentina for the first time since June, missed an excellent scoring opportunity from point-blank range, Spain did whatever it wanted.

The hosts dictated the match with long possessions, used pressure to recover the ball near the area and score, and caught Argentina off-guard with long balls behind its defensive line.

Argentina’s midfield of Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega and Lucas Biglia was left chasing passes by Andres Iniesta, Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion and Thiago Alcantara, while center backs Marcos Rojo and Nicolas Otamendi were picked apart by substitute Iago Aspas and Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, who scored his first career hat trick.

Sampaoli has less than three months to find some solutions. He soon has to start by picking a final squad, and Tuesday’s sorry showing surely leaves him with more questions than answers.

The one possible hope Sampaoli could grasp was that Messi, and other first-choice players, “would have played” if it had been a competitive match.

Argentina can also look to its 2-0 win over Italy on Friday, which Messi also missed because of a minor leg injury. Sampaoli had hoped to have Messi back to play against Spain, but discarded him after the Barcelona forward still felt bothered during training on Monday.

“But (Messi) stayed with us. I want to underscore his capacity to back his team and help along its young players,” Sampaoli said. “I see that he is very committed to the team.”

Argentina is a two-time World Cup champion and the soccer-crazed South American nation has long expected Messi to deliver a third title. A winner of 30 club trophies with Barcelona, the same fortune has not accompanied the five-time Ballon d’Or winner with Argentina.

Messi guided Argentina to the World Cup final four years ago in Brazil, only to lose to Germany 1-0. That was followed by more anguish as Argentina lost Copa America finals to Chile on penalties in both 2015 and 2016.

Messi will turn 31 during the tournament in Russia. And he knows that, regardless of the quality of his team, this is most likely his last opportunity to finally silence his critics back home.

“Being so close and not winning any of the chances we have had is a huge disappointment for us,” Messi told Fox Sports on Monday. “We feel it is now or never. We must think this is our last chance.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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