All the talk about Messi has been replaced with talk about Messi.
For the man who is phenomenal for his club, but seemingly detrimental for his country, El Pulga now can’t stop scoring for Argentina. Late on Friday night, or was it early Saturday morning, Messi followed in the footsteps of other famous Argentine number tens when he led his country out onto the pitch, literally as captain, figuratively as main man.
Los Albiceleste were quick off the blocks, Angel Di Maria scoring inside three minutes. Argentina then dominated, but needlessly gave away a penalty that Jonathan Fabbro dispatched to bring Paraguay back into the game. But then, a mistake from the Paraguayan defence and Gonzalo Higuain capitalised. In the second half, Lionel Messi struck a free kick to remind everyone that Cristiano Ronaldo is not the only great player in the world who can score from free kicks.
It was interesting to see how Argentina lined up against Paraguay in Cordoba. The back four was made up of relatively unknowns – the Napoli pair of Hugo Campangaro and Federico Fernandez, Benfica’s Ezequiel Garay, and Marcos Rojo of Sporting Lisbon. Contrast that with the four who lined up upfront – Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain. These two totally different looking sets of players made for an interesting blend, and Argentina were in danger of looking disjointed. But the two players who were put in the middle to link the defence to the attack, and vice versa, did their jobs well. With Javier Mascherano suspended, Alejandro Sabella picked Rodrigo Brana to partner Valencia’s Fernando Gago in midfield. The Estudiantes midfield man did not disappoint his former club manager, calm in possession, rarely losing it and linking up with Gago to make the Argentine eleven a one unit team. His only mistake was being culpable for the penalty that they conceded, needlessly handling the ball in the penalty area.
Argentina moved the ball with purpose, dominating possession and dictating the tempo. For Paraguay though, the future looks bleak. This team which reached the quarter finals of the World Cup just two years ago in South Africa, losing out to eventual winners Spain, this team that were runners up at the Copa America last year, are bottom of the pile in the nine team league table that makes up South America’s World Cup qualifying phase for Brazil 2014. On the other hand, Argentina go top and are firm favourites.
There is however a long way to go, as ten more rounds remain. But on the evidence of this match, Argentina will be confident. More so because of the performance of their star player. It wasn’t all about Messi, but in the end, it was all about Messi. He has been criticized for not doing enough for his country. In this game though, he played much deeper than he does for FC Barcelona. From this position, he looked even more dangerous. He had the opportunity to pick up the ball and do what he does best – take players on. His mesmerising runs however didn’t seem to bear fruit. It looked as if it wasn’t going to be his night. The upright denied him from a free kick in the first half, and the upright denied him again when he tried his trademark chip over the goalkeeper. But the upright finally gave in, the ball from his free kick bouncing in off it for his goal.
After that, patience. Knowing there was no need to go for it as the game was already won, he stoped with the ball at his feet. Pass, jog into space, receive the ball, pass again. The cycle starting all over again. The sequence mirrored by the rest of the team. Keeping possession and seeing the game out. It needed sensibility and calmness. Messi was just the man to provide it.
At the end of the game, the Argentine fans at the Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes stood in applause of their little magician. Where once they used to demand more from him, now they applaude his magnificence. Where once they used to say he could never become as great as Maradona, they now say he is on the right path. His goal makes him Argentina’s fourth highest record goal scorer. Only Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo and Diego Maradona are ahead of him, and he is six goals away from Maradona’s record. Where once they used to say he doesn’t score for Argentina, he’s answered with nine goals in five games in 2012. Silencing his critics? No!! Giving them more reason to praise him. All the talk about Messi has been replaced with talk about Messi.