The feathered touch from thigh
to left foot, the deftest switch to his right, the measured finish to the far
corner of the goal, a goal which appeared to be welcoming her lost son home.
The bulge of the net and the roar, all at once a collective catharsis for
captain, coach, and country.
Argentina took the lead against Nigeria
through this piece of skill which weve seen from Lionel Messi countless
times in his illustrious career and yet, our jaws still drop, still we blink in
disbelief at what our television screens project to us, dumbfounded once more
by the sheer footballing poetry we have been blessed to enjoy in our lifetimes.
It was Marcos Rojo who eventually fired the winner for Argentina on
Wednesday night to seal their progression to the next round.
But it was
Messis goal that gave us all a timely reminder of what separates the best
from the rest. That ability to produce such finery when the chips are down,
when the smothering weight of prospective failure is heaviest against
ones shoulders, as it was for Argentinas captain last night.
With Messi in the side, it
feels as though Argentina can never truly be down and out. He brings with him,
as Ronaldo does for Portugal, an almost indefinable quality. His inscrutable
talents creating an expectation for the extraordinary, for the audacious, in
the most crucial moments of matches.
on Argentina to win the 2018 World Cup had looked longer than ever after
the 3-0 humiliation against Croatia, but now Messi and co. go into their last
sixteen clash against France buoyed by this redemptive triumph.
Argentina, based on collective team performance, simply dont
deserve to have progressed to the knockout stage. Their displays have been
disjointed, insipid, bereft of the kind of attacking fluidity which should be
present given their mouth-watering array of attacking talent.
Iceland they failed to properly penetrate the Scandinavians rigid
structured defence, at times looking lost in the Moscow sun.
In what now
seems an eternity ago, Messi saw a penalty saved in that game, and it looked as
though perhaps his grip on the world was slipping, that the sands of time had
brought with them a fading of the footballing definitions that make Messi what
He looked frantic in possession, drifting into positions where it
was difficult for his teammates to find him, a figure frustrated by the
inadequacy of those around him.
The match against Croatia was little
short of a national embarrassment. Argentina looked lost, a skeleton of the
team that made it all the way to the final four years ago.
They failed to create
clear-cut chances, failed to get Messi on the ball, seemingly content to wallow
in the languor of their own interminable sideways passing.
picked them off with ease, and it was difficult to see how this Argentina side
had any chance of beating Nigeria, such was the ineptitude of their display. It
felt like the end of the line for the team that, since 2014, has reached the
final of a major tournament on three occasions.
Indeed, it has been a
familiar theme in recent World Cups, that of giants being violently dethroned.
Italy in 2010 suffered such a fate, the cracks appearing in the defending
champions once impenetrable defence, the merciless exposure of the fact
that Cannavaro et als best days were behind them.
Spain were the victims four years ago, crushed by the humiliation of a 5-1
opening game defeat to the Netherlands before bowing out with little more than
After Argentinas first two lacklustre performances, it
seemed as though a similar fate awaited Jorge Sampaolis men. But the
presence of Messi means they can never be discounted. Its the reason
France will now be shaking in their boots ahead of their second round clash.
Rumours of disharmony in the squad had dominated newspaper headlines in
the days leading up to the match against Nigeria. Rumours that coach Sampaoli
had lost control of the dressing room, that certain players were taking
responsibilities upon themselves to try and fix the sorry mess they had placed
It had seemed a chaotic prelude to a match which
demanded cool heads and a measured approach. Messi, in a departure from his
usual calm outward demeanour, gave an impassioned team talk in the tunnel
before the match, and then emerged from the tumult to produce the wonder goal
which may well come to define Argentinas World Cup.
stepped up when the team needed him most. When the rest of the players were
floundering, thrashing their arms in the waters of potential humiliation, Messi
came and calmed the seas.
Argentina almost conspired to shoot themselves
in the foot. Javier Mascheranos frankly idiotic foul on Leon Balogun
gifting Nigeria the penalty from which Victor Moses levelled the scores to once
again put Argentina on the brink of elimination.
And yet, from the moment
Messis shot had caressed the corner of the net less than fifteen minutes
in, it felt as though Argentinas progression was inevitable, that the
World Cup was not yet finished with them, that it was not yet ready to let go
of Lionel Messi.
Rojos 86th minute volley sparked jubilation from
St. Petersburg to Buenos Aires, and Messi was the first to jump on the
Manchester United defenders back to celebrate.
It was harsh on
Nigeria, but they are a young and exuberant side who will learn from this
experience and come back stronger in four years time.
Argentina, this may be a last hurrah for this current generation of which so
much has been expected, but has fallen just short so many times.
Sampaoli now must regroup his men, ready for battle against a France
side who will provide stern opposition. But now that the minefield that is the
group stage has been successfully negotiated, maybe well finally see this
Argentina side play with freedom, and make the most of the plethora of talented
forwards available to Sampaoli.
It could well be that this overcoming
of adversity is the catalyst for Argentina to go on and put right the wrongs of
four years ago, and with Messi at the helm it seems as though the limitations
which other teams must account for strangely do not apply to this team.
Perhaps, in the Luzhniki Stadium on the 15th July, well see Messi
produce another piece of awe-inspiring individual brilliance to lift the World
Cup that has so cruelly eluded him thus far. Again, we would shout and guffaw
at his brilliance, and hold our hands to our head once more in disbelief, but
would we really be surprised?