Messi saves Argentina again, but winning the World Cup will require much more
Ghosts everywhere. In the stands, where the ghost of Diego Maradona was waving his fists and wondering how Argentina could deliver such a foolish performance.
On the pitch, where the shadows of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain sprinted through the middle, looking for a pass or clearing the path for Lionel Messi.
The ghosts of Argentina’s past haunted them for large parts of Saturday’s match against Mexico, as the present almost became a living nightmare.
Lionel Scaloni’s side were in grave danger of exiting this World Cup after two games, the South American champions last year vulnerable to a humiliation on the global stage, until a flash of Messi magic changed everything.
A flick of the left boot from 25 yards and the ball slid into the bottom right corner. It had to be him.
On the night Messi matched Maradona’s Argentina record of 21 World Cup appearances, he also moved level with El Diego on eight career goals in the final, two behind national team record holder Gabriel Batistuta. For Messi, all of those World Cup goals have come in the group stage, something he came to Qatar to change and can still do.
Losing to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday was bad enough for Argentina, but at least there would be a reaction against the Mexicans. Maybe it could be the spur they needed, and maybe it could still be Messi’s World Cup.
There were theories that were widely expressed, but for an hour they appeared to be complete bunkum.
Even after 90 minutes, with a 2-0 score line that barely reflected the flow of the game, you were again in fear that Argentina might find a way to rise up against Poland next time. If they finish second in this group, it will almost certainly be France who await them in the second round and, on the evidence so far, Argentina will be crushed by Les Bleus.
Messi and Co arrived at this tournament on a 36-game unbeaten run, but such has been their sluggish start you’d be forgiven for guessing they played all 36 games in the last month.
Here they were on the move from the start, lacking any obvious strategy, low on energy and begging for Messi to conjure up something. It had a touch of Barcelona in the final days of Ronald Koeman’s reign.
Scaloni has backed Lautaro Martinez to be his lone striker and that scoreline may need to be rethought. Martinez has a shot conversion rate of 12.9 percent this season for Inter, which is not ideal for a striker, and has found the net at club level every 206.25 minutes.
He has Edin Dzeko up next to him for the Nerazzurri, who have been more clinical with their chances, but with Argentina it is Martinez who leads the line seemingly alone.
This team used to be embarrassed of attacking riches and they desperately miss prime-era Higuain and Aguero.
Martinez has a strong scoring record for his country, but he was ineffective here, his second game in his first World Cup.
When a clear chance came in the 40th minute, after a fine cross from the right by Di Maria, he planted a header well beyond the goal. It was his one goal try. Argentina had just five shots all night, which was still one more than Mexico. Their total number of shots is the fewest ever recorded in a World Cup, based on studies of matches as far back as 1966.
There was one moment late in the first half that seemed to define Argentina’s night: Mexico’s Alexis Vega had a free-kick well saved by Emiliano Martinez shortly before half-time and Argentina went to the break, with Messi looking to dance down the right . and make something happen.
Except those feet don’t dance as quickly as they once did, and the ball was soon swept into contact. At Paris Saint-Germain, with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe for company, the gradual decline of Messi is not quite so obvious. He can still be a joy to watch in that company, but when all the attention of the defenders is on him, as it inevitably was this time, he was too easily crowded out and barred off the ball.
In the second half, Erick Gutierrez hacked Messi as he got close to the edge of the box and began to sprint, and Argentina had the chance they wanted. Messi hit it over the bar and you just knew it wasn’t going to be his night.
And then Messi decided that yes, indeed it would be.
At the age of 35, he cannot win a World Cup on his own, but he can still find moments of magic and it was a career goal, a famous stroke of genius at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, which will stage this. tournament final.
For the second time in his career, Messi has scored in six consecutive international matches for his country. He is still a joy for a player, and the country’s greatest hope.
Substitute Enzo Fernandez added a late second goal that flattered Argentina, making the Benfica player, at 21 years and 313 days, the youngest Argentina scorer at a World Cup since 18-year-old Messi announced himself in the 2006 final. The past may still be a haunting influence, but here was a glimpse into the future.
A smiling Messi celebrated with relieved supporters at the end. For just a fleeting moment in this game, he had gained a yard of space and made it count.
Friday marked two years since Maradona’s death. He is Argentina’s past, but you still almost expect TV cameras to pan to him in the stands.
Messi has spent his life trying to live up to the legend of Maradona, and that shared supernatural brilliance has just about kept Argentina’s hopes alive in Qatar.