Messi resumes bid for elusive World Cup glory

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Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates victory after the 2018 FIFA World Cup Group D match between Nigeria and Argentina in Saint Petersburg, Russia, June 26, 2018. Argentina won 2-1 and advanced to the round of 16. (Xinhua/Yang Lei)

Superstar Lionel Messi will take a break from his Barcelona soap opera as he bids to fire Argentina to the World Cup in Qatar and what will probably be his last chance to try to win the coveted trophy.

The 33-year-old, a record six-time Ballon d'Or winner, has won everything in the club game with Barca several times over, but his international trophy cabinet looks bare in comparison.

"The only goal I have now is to win the World Cup with the national team," he has remarked in the past. The closest he has come so far was as a losing finalist against Germany in 2014.

Thursday's clash (Friday morning Beijing time) with Ecuador gives him the chance to start building toward one last tilt at that goal.

He will be 35 by the time the Qatar World Cup ends, and will turn 39 during the following global showpiece in North America.

In the meantime, he has a pair of qualifiers-Argentina also travels to Bolivia next Tuesday-to distract him from his club travails.

Messi tried to force his exit from the Catalan giant in the offseason but Barca held firm and a 700-million-euro ($823-million) release clause ensured he remained, albeit disgruntled.

Playing Ecuador in his homeland may provide a welcome respite but it is also fraught with potential difficulty.

Four years ago at the start of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Ecuador stunned Argentina 2-0 at River Plate's iconic Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires.

It took a hat-trick by an inspired Messi in Argentina's final qualifier-away to Ecuador-to send the twice world champion to Russia.

Thursday's match will be in another iconic stadium: Boca Juniors' Bombonera.

However, it will be a surreal experience in an empty ground that would normally be packed to the brim with some of the most fervent fans in the world. COVID-19 has put paid to any hopes of a paying public.

This is a much-changed Argentina from that which disappointed at the last World Cup.

Young coach Lionel Scaloni embarked on an ambitious regeneration of the squad following the abject exit from the Russia finals under Jorge Sampaoli.

However, alongside Scaloni's 'new guard' remain several old hats, like Messi.

"We can say that there are seven or eight 'memory' players that are the foundation," said Scaloni, pointing out that with "only one day of preparation" they would need the experienced heads to help the team hit the ground running.

He will be without the injured Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero, though, while Scaloni has left out Paris Saint-Germain winger Angel Di Maria.

"Messi needs two players ahead of him that he can assist, and sit deep, not at the tip. That's how we got results at the Brazil 2019 Copa America," added Scaloni, in reference to Argentina's third-place finish.

One player competing to lead the line is Sevilla's Lucas Ocampos.

"He's strong, technical and scores goals, and also helps in the defensive phase," said Scaloni, who will have to also select between Paulo Dybala of Juventus and Inter Milan's Lautaro Martinez.

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