Argentina vs Belgium World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi can take over from Neymar as the star turn

Following Neymar's World Cup ending injury, his Barcelona team-mate and South American rival is free to steal the headlines

Brasilia

Every great player needs a World Cup on which to leave his mark. With Neymar out of the tournament, Lionel Messi came to life at Brazil 2014 yesterday.

Despite his four goals and one assistgoing into yesterday, Messi had failed to assert his authority in the way he manages for Barcelona. To do so might be a big ask of the little man but it is what the Argentine public and football fans in general expect.

Brief moments of Messi magic have arrived late in games but yesterday it took only eight minutes for a delicious taste of things to come. Three intricate turns, which left the Belgium midfield chasing shadows, were greeted with shouts of Ole from the crowd and led to Argentina’s first goal.

Unlike other teams which Argentina have faced this tournament, Belgium had no specific plan to contain Messi.

 

Without a man marker, the little maestro enjoyed the freedom to roam and express himself. Even from the stands it was difficult to track his movement and the Belgians grew increasingly frustrated as he popped up all over the pitch, crafting almost all of Argentina’s best chances. In dazzling sunshine and roared on by fanatical Argentines within the 68,000 crowd in the Estadio Nacional, Messi treated them to his trademark twists and turns and piercing passes.

One first-half ball summed up his mood, hit from 40 yards around Kompany to almost fashion a second goal.

Midway through the first half he skipped his way past a trio of Belgian defenders who brought him crashing to the floor. Try as they might Belgium failed to get his measure and they paid a high price for not monitoring him more closely.

 Messi had a quieter second half but demonstrated a side of his game that does not generate as many headlines, dropping deep to carry out midfield defensive duties and battling to win the ball. He also missed one golden opportunity when he had only the goalkeeper to beat.

Read more: Argentina 1 Belgium 0 match report
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Despite their steady progress this tournament, Argentina have been mediocre at best, relying on flashes of Messi brilliance to get through games. The main topic of conversation back home ahead has been the lack of options within the team.

The big difference yesterday was that as Messi pulled the strings, the rest of the team struck a few notes of their own..

After being appointed manager in 2011, the first thing Alex Sabella did was to appoint Messi captain.

The team has been fashioned around him, playing to his strengths. What a contrast with four years ago in South Africa when at the same stage he walked off the pitch to a chorus of boos as he was blamed for their 4-0 hammering by Germany.

On Saturday he creamed the applause as the Argentina fans sang his name. They find themselves in the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 24 years and know that with Messi on song, anything is possible.

In Argentina they call him “La Pulga”, the little flea. As his adoring fans made their way out of the Estadio Nacional all the talk was of Messi and Wednesday’s semi-final in São Paulo. In an ideal world, they would like to see a final against Brazil.

Should that happen next Sunday, it will be an occasion to grace what has already been a wonderful tournament. And what better stage for Messi to prove beyond doubt that he is a true legend. On this form, you certainly would not bet against him.

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