Lionel Messi clenched his fists and pumped the air, the joy outpouring and the passion overflowing. Tensions had been relieved, derision cancelled. It was a goal the World Cup had waited for; a goal his nation expected and one that his team — and probably his career — needed. Given the stakes, given the occasion, that was the moment.
Minutes earlier he had skied a free kick and the Maracana had descended into boos. The Argentine fans were growing impatient. One moment was enough to please them. As Messi received the ball and began his slalom, it seemed as if the obvious eventuality would occur. A one-two with best friend Sergio Aguero, a sashaying run to evade Bosnian defenders, leaving them toppling over each other and a delicately placed shot that was enough to go in off the upright and nestling in the back of the net.
It would prove to be the winner — as Vedad Ibisevic would later come on to pull one back for Bosnia-Herzegovina. But in context, it proved to be a magical moment, a necessary one for Argentina. For 64 minutes, his only telling contribution had been to whip in the free kick that led to Bosnia’s own goal ande Argentina’s opener. In one moment in the 65th minute, that illuminating brilliance of his shone through.
In a way, maybe this was the spark, the flash to produce a lasting image that may permanently endure his lasting legacy. Without a performance at a World Cup to give finality to his glittering career, Messi’s achievements seem somewhat incomplete. This could be the beginning that could end with outlasting majesty.
However, for that to happen, his Argentina side must improve. For long periods, they looked underwhelming in their Group opener against Bosnia — that fearsome attack seemingly on different wavelengths. The defence may have been better than initially stated and it could be that Alejandro Sabella has drilled them into a fine unit. What was outstanding however was the midfield lacking cohesiveness, losing control with slack passing and pedestrian covering.
In a way also, maybe Sabella’s tactic to begin with a 5-3-2 almost undid them. That is a formation previously tried, but by no means the ultimately tested one. A 4-3-3 formation has been the staple, and even though Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuain were unfit, it still would have made sense to start with Lucas Biglia and either Rodrogo Palacio or Ezequiel Lavezzi.
In the end though, Argentina’s brightest period of the game came when the team set up in a somewhat lop-sided 4-2-1-3 formation. Messi was the hook — providing the link between Gago and Javier Mascherano from the back of midfield to the attacking three of Angel Di Maria (deep on the left), Higuain down the middle and Aguero shuffling inwards from the right.
It solved another of Messi’s problems. Beset by injuries, lacking in confidence and form and weary of tough tackles, a point has reached in Messi’s career where he feels that his best position is on the wide of the right, able to cut in onto his left. For that, he has requested to play their for Barcelona, and insisted to do so for Argentina.
True, this is a position of strength, but it is not his most effective. Messi’s logic is not for want of reason — from the wing, he will not get kicked around as much. But it is from the center where Messi can produce those brilliant moments.
Now, those moments are required and a return to the middle of the pitch is imperative. From there, Messi can start those penetrative runs, produce those defence splitting passes or unleash those goal bound shots. It is here where Messi finds himself — at a World Cup requiring the best of his performances. If such a glittering career is to attain its apogee, Messi must continue producing more Messi moments at the World Cup.