Statutory warning: This article will not mention the animal-name acronym at any point and won’t bring up the man who wears No 7 and plays for Portugal and Real Madrid.
It was as if France and Denmark knew that 26 June, 2018 was never going to be about them. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say to only a tiny percentage of football fans around the world would have woken up Tuesday morning and told themselves: right, I am excited about Denmark vs France. (You there, don’t kid yourself...)
This day was always going to be about Lionel Messi and Argentina.
After what happened in (and before) the Croatia game, you knew the cameras would be trained on him from the word go.
Is he disinterested?
Does he care enough?
Will he rub his forehead, covering his face again?
Will the real Leo Messi turn up?
Short answers: No, he’s not. Yes, he does. No, he didn’t. Yes, he did.
And the end result was Argentina pulling off a mini-heist against Nigeria in dramatic fashion. La Albiceleste, after all, live to fight another day.
Touch of genius
The ball from midfield from Ever Banega was delicious. He’d spotted Messi making a run, and he found him with precision. It landed on Messi’s left thigh. Actually, scratch that. Messi received the ball on his thigh, let it roll ever so gently forward and killed it dead with that phenomenal left foot of his, like a drop of rain falling on a leaf and rolling to the ground. The ball was under his mercy now, he could do with it what he wanted. And what he wanted was to let it roll in front of him, and finish past the goalkeeper with the right foot, as if he didn’t want his weaker weapon to feel left out in the process of creating magic.
Banega’s pass was great, but Messi made it jaw-dropping. The clock showed the game was in the 14th minute, but for a brief while, Messi made time pause for him.
In an article he wrote for the Telegraph, Cesc Fabregas had this to say about playing with Messi:
“Even with all the great players at Barcelona, even if you are not thinking about always passing to Leo, you look for him unconsciously because you know he is the best and you want to take advantage of having him. Sure, there were other amazing players, but when you are in trouble you can look for Leo. Even if he is surrounded by two or three opponents, when you would think twice about passing to another team-mate, you still pass to Leo. He has everything, so whatever you give to him he will make it good... that is the beauty of Leo, he makes it so easy for the others.”— Fabregas, talking about his 18-year-old friendship with Messi
And in that moment, he made it look easy for Argentina. What has all the fuss been about, eh?
Apart from that goal too, Messi often dictated proceedings in the first half. Playing on the right of Gonzalo Higuain, his dribbles were incisive, his movement was sharp, he dropped deep when he had to. A through ball to Higauin soon after the goal was threaded through a needle, but the striker’s attempted chip was saved well by Francis Uzoho. The youngster thwarted Messi’s genius again this time getting a fingertip to a freekick and pushing it onto the post.
Messi, the player we have all come to adore, was in his element.
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As the players came out for the second half, something interesting happened. Just before entering the pitch, he gathered his team in a huddle and spoke passionately for a good couple of minutes. Did he know that the world was still watching him? Was this a powerplay, to show who is the boss? In all likelihood, it was just the captain rallying his troops for one more push. This was a rare occurrence: Messi, the captain took center-stage. He wanted to be heard as a leader.
But if the first half represented everything that can be good about this Argentina side, large parts of the second half saw them revert to type. Javier Mascherano, who had a nightmare game against Croatia, had already been found out in the first half on a few occasions for his lack of pace and waning passing accuracy. In the second half, he made it worse by conceding the silliest of penalties. And from the moment Victor Moses coolly slotted the ball home from the spot, Argentina looked rattled.
The defence was suddenly all over the place, allowing Ahmed Musa far too many chances to dribble down the left. Angel di Maria was playing like an amateur footballer, unable to complete the simplest of passes. Even Banega started making mistakes. Had Musa and Odion Ighalo been more efficient, Nigeria could have put the game to bed in that 20-minute period. Let the record state that the Super Eagles blew it.
But all this while, Messi kept trying. At one point, he tracked back down the right flank like a man possessed, to win the ball back. He did not stop demanding for the ball. It wasn’t working for him, but unlike the night against Croatia, he did not hide. He was leading the charge, dysfunctional as it was.
Messi had carried Argentina into the World Cup – through the qualifier – and had done that for a good part of this must-win match until Marco Rojo stepped in and volleyed the ball into the net, first-time in the 86th minute.
For a change at the end, he was carried by Rojo on his back as they wheeled off in celebration. Nigerian hearts were broken, but St. Petersburg turned into Buenos Aires from that moment till, apparently, long after the final whistle.
In the end, salvation (even if temporary) lay within for Messi and came in the form of Rojo’s sweetly-struck volley.