Four qualifying games, four wins, and one more giant step towards the next World Cup. Argentina continue to look unbeatable on the pitch, whether or not their superstar is around – though it is always a plus to see him line up.
“Let's not retire him just yet,” Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni fired on Monday, amused and exasperated in equal measure over the constant questions concerning Lionel Messi's future. “He's still here, leave him be. I hope he can play forever.” It was a significant vote of confidence for the veteran number 10, who has been forced to sit out several games for club and country recently as the effects of 12 punishing months caught up with him, and one he was seemingly desperate to repay.
It did not take him long. Half an hour into Tuesday's clash with Peru the Albiceleste launched a lightning counter-attack deep into their own half, eerily reminiscent of that which carved open France for the second goal of the World Cup final victory. Messi helped open the field with a neat touch at the start of the move and then somehow appeared on the edge of the home area to fire past Pedro Gallese with a trademark whipped left-footed finish, opening the scoring for the Scaloneta.
If there were any lingering doubts over his fitness, they were extinguished in the blink of an eye; then, 10 minutes later, he popped up again with a strike almost identical to the first and sent his side on the way to yet another win. It was just what the doctor ordered for Argentina, who within the space of a week proved that with or without their talisman they can keep steamrolling opposition the length and breadth of South America.
The two games – Argentina had kicked off this international round by dispatching Paraguay at the Monumental – demonstrated the flexibility of thought and action that has been their and Scaloni's most valuable attribute all through these remarkable years of success.
On Thursday, shorn of the team's heart, the hosts reacted by recreating him across the pitch. The likes of Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernández, Julián Álvarez and Lautaro Martínez were encouraged to run wild in his absence and they did so with a marvellous exhibition of creative, improvised football to keep deep-lying Paraguay pinned back even after falling behind early.
Against Peru, on the other hand, the system was king, centred around Messi. The Albiceleste showcased a hectic, all-action football to exploit the spaces left by Peru and charged around the pitch like men possessed while keeping things altogether more simple. From freeform jazz to furious heavy metal, the note this team strikes can alter on demand but very rarely disappoints.
Bigger challenges loom on the horizon. In November Uruguay visit, with the Celeste at the very top of their game after inflicting the first qualifying defeat on Brazil in eight years. Argentina's own Marcelo Bielsa has revolutionised the nation's football and they will be a tough prospect indeed.
As will Brazil themselves, who then lie in wait and will be desperate for redemption following that 2-0 humbling at the Estadio Centenario, complete with mocking 'Olé' chants the Seleçao are very much not used to hearing as their vanquishers knocked the ball around towards the end.
It will not be easy by any means, but Argentina can go into those two giant fixtures safe in the knowledge that they can keep this incredible run of form intact, whether their captain is present or not.