In the match he was supposed to be front and centre, Lionel Messi stayed on the periphery. But wait, that is only half the story.
Angel di Maria, till then the best attacking player on either side, played a ball to Messi from the right. For once, Mexico didn’t close him down. Rather they were a step slower. But there was still a phalanx of legs in front, Mexico would have thought. One through which Messi managed to place a shot so acute that Guillermo Ochoa just couldn’t reach it.
Sixty-four minutes into a physical game so intense that players did not have, what Brazil coach Tite termed, the lightness of foot to pass a football around, Messi had resuscitated Argentina’s World Cup. The Lusail, some cauldron of noise on Saturday, shook, its reverberations felt in Doha and beyond. Messi exhaled. Argentina lived.
Their evening got better with a screamer from Enzo Fernandez in the 87th minute after cutting in from the left, weaving before pulling the trigger to make it a 2-0 win. By then, with Mexico forced to get out of their defensive shell, spaces were opening up and Messi began to enjoy the evening.
Messi now has eight World Cup goals in 21 games, the same as Diego Maradona who played as many games in this quadrennial showpiece. Hopefully, tomorrow would be a happy day, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni had said on Maradona’s second death anniversary on Friday.
Till the goal, Messi was having a forgettable game. In the 56th minute, he splayed a pass wide and a little earlier had skied a free-kick, won by him after shielding the ball from Erick Gutierrez that forced the Mexican substitute to challenge him from behind and get into referee Daniele Orsato’s book.
Mexico were forcing Messi to drop deeper knowing that the further they kept him from their goal, the easier it would be for them to manage the game.
Coached by former Argentina and Barcelona boss Gerard ‘Tata’ Martino, you would expect Mexico to know a thing or two about how to stop Messi. Mexico did that in the first half but barring a free-kick from Alexi Vega that Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez gripped with both hands flying to his right, they had little to show for.
The defeat has put the serial qualifiers from the group in a spot. Mexico, for whom goals have been a problem – they have 17 in 14 games – are at the bottom of Group C, their fate no longer in their hands.
The game was for Argentina to take charge but the man who does it regularly couldn’t because Mexico denied him space with their quintet at the back aided by defensive midfielders dropping in. Messi produced the odd chip, took corner-kicks; one of them swerved in for Ochoa to punch up and not away, another played short for Angel di Maria to find Lautaro Martinez who mistimed his jump for the header.
By then Scaloni was looking worried, a little later the Argentina coach was seen scratching his head. He had made five changes to the team that lost to Saudi Arabia. Scaloni, Messi’s teammate in the 2006 World Cup, though didn’t forget to console Andres Guardado who had to go off in the first half due to injury and was replaced by Gutierrez.
Messi eased Scaloni and Argentina’s worries before Fernandez turned it into a good evening.