The world celebrated Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spain, topped off with a free kick that curled and dipped into goal. ‘Ronaldo-3, Lio-nil’ quipped one headline, referring to the endless debate over who is the best footballer in the world.
Toni Kroos pulled off a creative free-kick winner from an acute angle to save Germany. Nacho Fernandez and Philippe Coutinho produced breathtaking long-range goals for Spain and Brazil. But for sheer sublime brilliance, Lionel Messi’s first goal of the tournament takes the cake.
He started his sprint from just inside the Nigerian half with a defender in pursuit and one eye on Ever Banega, who found him with a long pass. Messi controlled the ball with two touches on his left leg, transferring the ball from his thigh to his foot in the same stride and pushing it to the right for the finish with his weaker, right foot. To be able to do that at a dead run with a Nigerian defender on his heels is what makes the Argentinian a genius, and why we’re thrilled to see more of him in this World Cup.
Messi has had a heavy cross to bear. The dichotomy in his performances for his club side Barcelona and the national team has been discussed ad nauseam over the last decade. The simple truth is that football is a team sport and no individual talent can shine for long on its own.
It’s not as if Messi has been a flop. Argentina did reach the 2014 final and should have won it too. Higuain and Messi missed good chances before Germany scored in extra time. Did Messi cave in under pressure or was the burden of carrying the team through too much in the end? Answers to such questions are often just a matter of where we stand.
Would Messi’s goal against Nigeria on Tuesday have merited more than a footnote if Argentina had been knocked out of the tournament? It was really Marcos Rojo’s late goal to give Argentina a life-saving 2-1 win that elevated the Messi goal. Such is team sport.
Matches are won as much by tactical acumen and team spirit as individual talent. Argentina has played under three managers in the lead-up to the World Cup. The current one, Jorge Sampaoli, faced a player revolt after questionable tactics played a big part in Argentina’s 1-1 draw with minnows Iceland and 3-0 drubbing by Croatia.
The change was evident against Nigeria. Messi was smiling and relaxed before the game, a stark contrast with him massaging his forehead while waiting for the Croatia game to begin. It was Messi who gave a team talk at the break, not the manager.
Banega, who made the pass that let Messi show his genius, was a vital playmaker through the game. The creative midfielder freed Messi to do the running in attacks up front. That Banega was left out for the first two games was just one among many errors that were corrected.
The defence looked less nervy with experienced goalkeeper Franco Armani making his debut for Argentina in place of the bumbling Willy Caballero. Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo, strangely benched earlier, came in and proved decisive in the end. The players also seem to have prevailed in forcing a return to a 4-3-3 formation instead of Sampaoli’s preferred 3-4-3 formation, which left the defensive flanks exposed against Croatia.
Still, there’s a way to go for this to become a champion side. Javier Mascherano’s wrestling in the danger zone allowed Nigeria back into the game with a penalty and the attack remains too dependent on Messi.
Gonzalo Higuain continues to miss chances, one of them a beautiful ball passed through by Messi. Angel Di Maria produced a good run to earn a free kick that Messi hit into the goalpost off the fingertips of the Nigerian goalkeeper. But there was an air of desperation as Argentina struggled to score the winning goal. And why did the speedy Sergio Aguero, a vocal critic of Sampaoli, have to wait 80 minutes to make an appearance?
Argentina benefited from Nigeria playing for the draw that would have seen them through. They did not play the kind of attacking football that made Ahmed Musa such a treat to watch in the 2-0 win over Iceland.
So the last-gasp win against Nigeria was just a get-out-of-jail card for Argentina. They will need to keep improving in the tests ahead if fans are to see more of Messi’s magic and less of Sampaoli’s mess.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and independent writer based in Bengaluru.