A touch, quite literally, of genius.
As he hit a millennium of appearances, Leo Messi offered a moment that showed why he is not just the player of his generation but perhaps any generation. There was no upset on this landmark occasion, but instead a suitably signature goal. Messi scored one of his trademark finishes, that exquisitely accurate slide into the corner, but on a stage he never has before. It was his first goal in a World Cup knock-out match, on his ninth such fixture.
It set Argentina on the way to a tough 2-1 win over a valiant Australian team, who continued to give a fine account of themselves right until the very end. For all the issues they gave Argentina, too – particularly for one defiant defensive challenge from Lisandro Martinez and one brilliant save from Emiliano Martinez when equalisers seemed certain – the wonder is whether that goal will also set them on the way to the final. Lionel Scaloni’s side do not look anywhere near as good as their long unbeaten run suggested, but they have a dogged momentum that will be difficult for better sides to play against, and is only further driven by thousands of raucous fans who make every match here seem like a home game.
It is a genuine experience to be at a stadium for an Argentina game, even in a host country as controversial and oddly stale as this.
It is of course an experience to watch Messi in a game like this, on an occasion, especially with the manner he again grew into a game.
It was like Mexico and Poland in that sense and perhaps bodes well for his tournament as a whole.
After starting the game at walking pace, he finished it completely running it.
There were so many Diego Maradona 1986 moments as Messi would draw an entire defence with another coruscating run only for a teammate – most notably the atrociously off-form Lauturo Martinez – to haplessly waste a fine opportunity he had just offered up for them.
The captain never once displayed anger, though, just getting on with it and going again. Or, at least, didn’t display anger to his own teammates.
The turning point in the game may have come when Aziz Behich made the mistake of riling Messi up.
After a tangle of legs, the Australian defender pulled his shirt and dragged him over the line. It brought something out of him.
Messi had actually been pretty poor before his flare-up with Behich. Whatever about finding his range, or space, he was struggling to find a man. Messi had misplaced three consecutive passes, and didn’t seem capable of escaping the four-man cage that Australia had put around him. He was ambling around, ineffective. Argentina were completely controlling the game but couldn’t actually do much because they couldn’t get it to their captain.
Then, Behich had a go, pulled his shirt, squared up to him and within two minutes Messi had scored.
You would love him when he’s angry. Such emotion produced a vintage Messi moment, in so many senses. Having whipped in a free-kick that itself almost bent in, the playmaker stayed near the sideline as the ball was played out, then pinballed back. It was all so chaotic.
Messi took control, first by showing how you really control a football. From a long and looping ball, the playmaker just killed it with one sublime touch before playing it back out to Alexis Mac Allister. The midfielder offered a fine through ball of his own, but only to Nicolas Otamendi. Messi wasn’t having that.
He was going to show his centre-half how it was done by showing us something we’ve seen so many times, but remains almost impossible to stop. Messi took the ball off Otamendi before just sliding the ball past Mat Ryan. The goalkeeper could only watch it go tantalisingly past his fingers, and while that made it seem he should have done better, that is actually the magic trick. That’s how it keeps working, how Messi has this remarkable goal record for 1,000 games. It is just perfectly placed. He doesn’t need the power because he has pristine precision.
Australia now had to change something. Their entire gameplan was naturally based on defensively containing Argentina, and that was now pointless. This was a knock-out, they needed to go for it.
They more than did that, although it first led to a mistake Ryan genuinely should have done better for. It was impossible not to have sympathy for the Copenhagen goalkeeper, especially given how costly the error ended up proving.
Ryan attempted to play the ball out with his feet only for Rodrigo De Paul to initially impede him. That saw the goalkeeper lose control and also lose sight of Julian Alvarez who ran around him, picked his pocket, then picked out the corner. It went even more slowly than Messi’s and made it all the more tortuous for Australia.
It wasn’t to be an easy finish for Argentina, though. On 77 minutes, and totally befitting Australia’s attitude, Craig Goodwin decided to have a go. His thunderous shot cannoned off Enzo Fernandez and past Martinez.
The tone changed. The feel changed. It began to seem like it could be one of those days as Messi kept setting up chances and Martinez kept somehow missing them. Australia were starting to force openings at the other end. Argentina’s backline couldn’t head everything clear.
Behich almost broke through with a Messi-like run of his own. That was when Martinez the centre-half had to get across. It was a moment that almost stopped Argentina in their tracks and had many gasping, but worse was to come. In the final moment of the match, the ball was desperately worked across to Garang Kuol. He turned on it and seemed destined to turn it in. Martinez the goalkeeper produced one of the saves of the tournament to totally shut the shot down, and of course put his body down on it to waste time.
It ensures a bit more time of Messi in the most illustrious competition of all. It might just be his moment. Messi for once had to be grateful to someone else. Everyone else is grateful for the chance to see him.
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