It was as if the first half an hour of the game, the first half of this World Cup even, had been part of his long con. A setup. In a similar situation shortly before, Lionel Messi had shot wide. For much of the tournament, that pass had been stroked out wide to the left.
Daley Blind thought he knew what was coming and was a stride behind Nahuel Molina. Virgil van Dijk was guilty only of placing his weight on the wrong foot, mirroring Messi’s movement. Messi never looked but instinct told him that the reverse ball was on.
The pass was played. The Netherlands were played.
Argentina’s quarter-final win became fraught, laced with drama, tension, panic and anger. It needed two penalty saves from Emiliano Martinez and a winner from namesake Lautaro in the end. Urged on by their vast support, the emotional energy expended is incalculable.
But before all that was this moment, the goal that showed us why Argentina can win this World Cup. There is a simpatico relationship between one genius and the 10 men who appear willing to do anything and everything that is required to help him.
Messi can still manipulate a football like no man alive but at 35 years old his movement is now truncated. More than half of his time on the pitch is spent at walking pace. The old adage that a team full of Messis would be unbeatable is no longer true. He needs runners.
Molina made that run believing that Messi would find him but knowing that he might not. Along with Marcos Acuna, the wing-back on the opposite flank who won the penalty from which Messi scored Argentina’s second goal, their energy is powering this team.
When they could run no more they were replaced by two more willing to do just the same. Argentina tried to stay compact behind Messi and they tried to scamper around ahead of him. Julian Alvarez, a picture of youthful enthusiasm as he ran for two up front.
To decry the talent of the rest is to miss the point.
Messi has been part of more scintillating sides than this one, of course, even at international level. His World Cup debut came as a substitute in a memorable six-goal win over Serbia that included one of the great team goals that this tournament has ever witnessed.
The talent that has come and gone since then is astonishing. But what Messi could not do with Juan Roman Riquelme and Hernan Crespo, Carlos Tevez and Juan Sebastian Veron, or Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, he could yet accomplish with this Argentina.
There are echoes of the nation’s 1986 win here that extend beyond the obvious similarities to the man whose name Messi evoked when celebrating this victory after the game. The player with whom he has forever been compared when wearing an Argentina shirt.
Diego Maradona played in the 1982 World Cup with those heroes of four years earlier, Mario Kempes and Daniel Passarella. He forged a bond on and off the pitch with Claudio Caniggia in 1990 and they were joined by the brilliant Gabriel Batistuta in 1994.
But he won the trophy with none of them. He did it alongside an initially maligned but ultimately more functional group of players who became a band of brothers. In a 3-5-2 system similar to the one now adopted by Lionel Scaloni, they found a way to make it work.
“The team was based on a very solid architecture,” said Jorge Valdano, perhaps the closest thing to a star player among the rest of that 1986 World Cup-winning squad. He and they recognised that there was one man apart – that was the secret of their success.
“In the midst, a genius who was granted the privilege of freedom. The influence of Maradona was so significant it seemed to spread to the entire team, yet the team was very structured from a tactical viewpoint, and each one of us had very precise obligations.”
Speaking to Pedro Pasculli, Maradona’s room-mate and the scorer of the winner against Uruguay in 1986, he said similar. “We were not favoured but the collective was crucial,” Pasculli told Sky Sports. “We had that hunger and that humility to play and to win.”
They say Maradona beat England and Belgium alone. He needed others. Tightly marked against West Germany, it was Jorge Burruchaga’s run that he spotted for the winner. “He was the ace of spades,” Burruchaga later said. “But the team helped him a lot.”
And so it is in 2022.
Argentina do not need 11 like Messi. They only need one. Ten willing workers around him. Ten men who are prepared to do their own jobs, running harder and smarter than the opposition, while knowing that they have something – someone – others do not.
It is a mindset but also a skillset.
Sergio Aguero is a great friend to Messi and was a far greater player than Alvarez is right now. But was his style such a natural fit? Ever Banega was a fine playmaker but he did not cover the ground in 2018 that Rodrigo De Paul has been willing to cover in Qatar.
Germany’s World Cup-winning captain Philipp Lahm has noted the “unusual and exciting division of labour” in this team. He sees a difference to the one that lost the 2014 final. That side was waiting for Messi to solve everything. This one is playing to help him to do it.
To his credit, Scaloni recognised this right from the start. Messi was not even in his squad for the early part of his time in charge, considering his future. The coach regarded that as a positive. “We needed the group to be strong first,” he has said. It is strong now.
That might be missed in all this. “Tactics are also important,” argued the Netherlands defender Jurrien Timber beforehand as if assuming this favoured his team. Scaloni has tactics too. His is a solid side built to bring the best out of the very best.
The proof is there. When Messi walked from the pitch on Friday evening, exhausted but triumphant, the statistics showed that he had attempted more shots than anyone else at the World Cup – almost double that of anyone in the tournament bar Kylian Mbappe.
He is his team’s scorer and their creator. Only Antoine Griezmann has supplied more chances at this World Cup. Messi has even completed more successful dribbles than all but three other players. It is extraordinary. It is also being facilitated by those around him.
In more ways than one, this Argentina team is working.
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