BERNE (Reuters) - Lionel Messi has long had to contend with the criticism that he saves his best for Barcelona but his first hat-trick for Argentina proved a perfect riposte against those who doubted his international credentials.
“I had been waiting for a long time for this moment because on a lot of occasions things didn’t work out for me,” he told Argentine television after Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Switzerland.
“Now, things have worked out, the team won and we did well. It’s special because it happened with the national team.”
Failure to score at the 2010 World Cup or last year’s Copa America had baffled observers, with some questioning his commitment and others making him a scapegoat for the team’s failings, even under the eccentric leadership of Diego Maradona.
Three times World Player of the Year, Messi has won all his major honours - five Spanish league titles, three Champions League and two Club World Cup titles - with Barcelona.
At international level, he has been restricted to two age-level titles, the world under-20 championship in 2005 and the Olympic Games gold medal in 2008.
“I’ve said on a lot of occasions that we can’t compare with Barcelona, they are two different things, but it’s also the case the national team has great players capable of playing great games,” Messi said.
“I’ve known the Kun (Sergio Aguero) for a long time and the same goes for Pipita (Gonzalo Higuain), it’s easy to strike up an understanding with them on the pitch and we have a good relationship off it, which is also important.”
“There is still a big margin for improvement, we just have to continue like this.”
Coach Alejandro Sabella, who was in charge for his tenth international after replacing Sergio Batista following the Copa America, had nothing but praise for Messi, saying it was a “blessing” for Argentina to have him in the side.
“Messi nearly always plays well, recently he has played some excellent games,” he told reporters. “We have to shelter him and we all have to help him, players and technical staff.”
“The fact that he didn’t score doesn’t mean that he didn’t play well at the last World Cup. He set up several goals and created a lot of chances. Sometimes, the ball goes in and sometimes it doesn‘t.”
Sabella said Argentina’s priority had to be to give Messi the ball where he was at his most dangerous, just inside the opposition half where he could run at their defence.
“We have to try out players who can give us versatility and speed, such as Maxi Rodriguez, who is versatile and can play on both sides,” he said.
“In the first half, we won the ball five times in the midfield and that’s where he makes the difference. The second goal was like that, we put pressure on the opposition near to where Messi was.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by John O'Brien