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Magic Messi carries Argentina through
Lionel Messi
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 we’ve 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 Messi’s 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 one’s shoulders, as it was for Argentina’s 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.

Odds 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 don’t 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.

Against 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 is.

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.

Croatia 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 al’s best days were behind them.

Similarly, 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 a whimper.

After Argentina’s first two lacklustre performances, it seemed as though a similar fate awaited Jorge Sampaoli’s men. But the presence of Messi means they can never be discounted. It’s 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 themselves in.

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 Argentina’s World Cup.

The captain 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 Mascherano’s 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 Messi’s shot had caressed the corner of the net less than fifteen minutes in, it felt as though Argentina’s 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.

Rojo’s 86th minute volley sparked jubilation from St. Petersburg to Buenos Aires, and Messi was the first to jump on the Manchester United defender’s 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.

For 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 we’ll 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, we’ll 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?
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