Pressure does funny things to a person. Some wilt, some cry, some stand up to be counted. Some volley the ball like they have never volleyed a ball in their life. Marcos Rojo: right place, right time, somehow right man.
It is a back-handed compliment to Jorge Sampaoli’s team that they attacked with more vigour and defended with more fight against Nigeria than they have done in this World Cup so far, an improvement from the miserable mean. But this was an evening when focusing on anything other than the headline news is a folly. Sampaoli spoke of playing five finals en route to a possible final in Moscow. One final done, four to go. Only the result is king.
You have to admire Argentina’s coach for at least attempting to deflect part of the tidal wave of criticism that has been forcefully washed over him this week. He described being made to feel like a criminal by a rabid media, but this is par for the South American course, particularly when you are guilty of professional negligence. To continue the analogy beyond a reasonable point, Sampaoli has got out of jail.
There had been a spate of rumour and counter-rumour. There was a squad revolt or there wasn’t. There were physical confrontations, or there weren’t. Argentina’s players demanded a return to the back four, or they didn’t. Javier Mascherano picked the team, or he didn’t. That final claim is the easiest to believe; it can be the only explanation for Mascherano continuing to start in midfield.
It was Mascherano who auditioned for the role of villain, holding Leon Balogun in the box as Oghenekaro Etebo’s corner was delivered. The penalty was as soft as cold custard, but in the age of VAR you cannot hope to avoid even minor offence. In any case, Cuneyt Cakir had no doubt on first viewing.
Although Rojo’s face will sit front and centre of newspapers across Argentina, his mouth contorted into a scream of ecstasy at the majesty of his timing, a more likely leading man delivered. The magician did his trick; pledge, turn and prestige. Lionel Messi’s goal was as wonderful as any of the countless others that in ten years’ time we will watch back on loop and realise how fortunate we were and how much we took him for granted.
Sampaoli is renowned as a tactician, but this tournament may still be regarded as his greatest failure. The only obvious attacking strategy in Argentina’s first game was to only pass to Messi. The only obvious attacking strategy in Argentina’s second game was to never pass to Messi. It doesn’t take Rinus Michels to work out that a balance might be the best idea. Messi found the balance himself.
The brilliance of the pass should not, cannot, be overlooked. Ever Banega had not started in this World Cup until Tuesday, only one of a series of questionable tactical decisions by Sampaoli. Banega is a majestic creator of chances, but he is also a controller. In a central midfield that has had all the self-discipline of a raucous children’s party, Banega’s calm authority was vital. He must stay in this team.
Messi’s first touch, taken on the knee, was worth as much as two or three from 99% of professional players, and made the goal possible. Hopes and travails have been piled upon the shoulders of this wondrous player. In such circumstances, a soft touch is virtually impossible. The tendency, as Messi himself has experienced in this tournament, is to try too hard. That does not lead to feathery, silky touches.
The second touch, with the ball still in flight, was Messi in excelsis. It was both brilliantly simple and simply brilliant, the obvious thing to do and yet one of a hundred other options. This is Messi the computer game player, brilliance occurring as standard. Brilliance just happening. “I’ve said before, it’s like playing PlayStation,” as Zlatan Ibrahimovic once said. “You give the ball to the guy and you start to go through every player and that’s who Messi is.”
The finish was extraordinarily accomplished, given the magnitude of the situation. It recalled Michael Owen against Argentina in 1998, the instinctive touch of a teenager with nothing to lose and the world to impress. That it came from a 31-year-old with a nation on his shoulders and the world’s media on his back would be remarkable if it were anyone else. If anything about Messi still surprises you, you haven’t been watching hard enough.
“Tomorrow Argentina will start its World Cup,” Sampaoli told reporters on Monday. It was a cliche, the desperate plea of a desperate man. Want something hard enough, say it enough times, and it will come true. On Tuesday, with minutes remaining and his reputation on the line, the stars shone on Sampaoli and Argentina. As ever, one star shone brighter than most.