The big question coming into Argentina’s do-or-die Group D finale against Nigeria wasn’t so much if La Albiceleste would get the win and the help they needed from Croatia to advance to the knockout stage at the 2018 World Cup. It was, ‘Which Lionel Messi will show up?’ Tuesday at Saint Petersburg Stadium?
Would it be the Messi who performs miracles on a weekly basis for club side Barcelona, the guy many credible observers consider the best player of all time? Or would we see a return of the forlorn figure that the many millions who idolize Messi across the globe saw, rather jarringly it must be said, seemingly consumed by pressure before last week’s 3-0 humiliation by the Croats?
Imagine that: the otherworldly Messi defeated before a ball had been kicked. But such is the burden on the now 31-year-old – he celebrated his birthday on Sunday – to will what is clearly a disjointed at best and dysfunctional at worst Argentina squad to its first World Cup title in over 30 years and, in the process, cement his status as the greatest ever and emerge from the shadow of the ever-present Diego Maradona in the country of his birth. Hell, no wonder Messi looked stressed.
Fair of not, it still hard not to wonder if Messi, who was downright invisible in that Croatia debacle, would go down fighting. How could he not, even if he’d already conceded in his own heart that he would never lift that golden trophy? There’s no shame in losing. One man can only do so much. But to go out with a whimper on the biggest stage there is, in what many are predicting will be his final World Cup no matter what? Now that, more than anything else, had the potential to do real and lasting damage to his legacy.
It took 14 minutes to remove any doubt about Messi’s resolve. The Argentina captain was noticeably engaged in the match well before that, but it was his brilliant three-touch trap, set-up and finish past Nigerian keeper Francis Uzoho that rebooted his team after a disastrous start to the tournament. More to the point, it instantly restored his teammates’ faith in him.
Argentina came into its final match knowing its fate was out of its hands. If Iceland beat already-through Croatia in a match being played simultaneously, three points against Nigeria wouldn’t be enough. They had to win just to give themselves a chance.
More than anything, they had to fight. And after Messi set the tone early, his fellow veterans lined up behind him. Javier Mascherano, 34, turned back the clock with a tremendous individual defensive performance that only got better after he’d conceded the penalty that Victor Moses buried to erase Messi’s goal. Mascherano, blood covering half of his face for most of the second half, broke up play after play in the run-up to Marcos Rojo’s 86th-minute winner, helping to strain the Super Eagles until they finally broke.
Ever Banega, Lucas Biglia, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Enzo Perez – all of them 29 or older, and all members of at least two of the teams that fell in the finals of major tournaments in 2014, ’15 and ‘16 – did their part. Rarely was it pretty. There were moments throughout the match where La Albiceleste could barely string two passes together. Yet their pride was on display throughout. They weren’t going out like that.
Mascherano denied reports of a bust-up with manager Jorge Sampaoli but clearly the team’s elders took it upon themselves to make sure that if this was to be their last match in Russia – or the last time they’d wear the famous light blue-and-white shirts – it would be one they would be able to live with.
As Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir’s watch ticked closer to full time, Messi could be seen slide tackling a ball out of play 90 yards from his own goal. Moments later, he blocked a long pass and bled several more seconds off the clock. After the whistle mercifully blew, Mascherano and Messi held each other in a long embrace. Croatia had beaten Iceland in the other game, and Argentina would join them in the second round.
When it mattered most, Messi did what the greatest players in history do and put his team on his back. A difficult Round of 16 match versus France now awaits on Saturday, but Argentina will gladly take it, happy to be alive to fight another day.
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