big question coming into Argentina’s do-or-die Group D finale against
Nigeria wasn’t so much if La Albiceleste would get the win and the help
they needed from Croatia to advance to the knockout stage at the 2018 World Cup. It was, ‘Which Lionel Messi will show up?’ Tuesday at Saint Petersburg Stadium?
it be the Messi who performs miracles on a weekly basis for club side
Barcelona, the guy many credible observers consider the best player of
all time? Or would we see a return of the forlorn figure that the many
millions who idolize Messi across the globe saw, rather jarringly it
must be said, seemingly consumed by pressure before last week’s 3-0 humiliation by the Croats?
that: the otherworldly Messi defeated before a ball had been kicked.
But such is the burden on the now 31-year-old – he celebrated his
birthday on Sunday – to will what is clearly a disjointed at best and
dysfunctional at worst Argentina squad to its first World Cup title in
over 30 years and, in the process, cement his status as the greatest
ever and emerge from the shadow of the ever-present Diego Maradona in
the country of his birth. Hell, no wonder Messi looked stressed.
of not, it still hard not to wonder if Messi, who was downright
invisible in that Croatia debacle, would go down fighting. How could he
not, even if he’d already conceded in his own heart that he would never
lift that golden trophy? There’s no shame in losing. One man can only do
so much. But to go out with a whimper on the biggest stage there is, in
what many are predicting will be his final World Cup no matter what?
Now that, more than anything else, had the potential to do real and
lasting damage to his legacy.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi scored his first goal of the World Cup in a win-or-go-home match against Nigeria. (Getty)
took 14 minutes to remove any doubt about Messi’s resolve. The
Argentina captain was noticeably engaged in the match well before that,
but it was his brilliant three-touch trap, set-up and finish past
Nigerian keeper Francis Uzoho that rebooted his team after a disastrous
start to the tournament. More to the point, it instantly restored his
teammates’ faith in him.
came into its final match knowing its fate was out of its hands. If
Iceland beat already-through Croatia in a match being played
simultaneously, three points against Nigeria wouldn’t be enough. They
had to win just to give themselves a chance.
than anything, they had to fight. And after Messi set the tone early,
his fellow veterans lined up behind him. Javier Mascherano, 34, turned
back the clock with a tremendous individual defensive performance that
only got better after he’d conceded the penalty that Victor Moses buried
to erase Messi’s goal. Mascherano, blood covering half of his face for
most of the second half, broke up play after play in the run-up to Marcos Rojo’s 86th-minute winner, helping to strain the Super Eagles until they finally broke.
Banega, Lucas Biglia, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas
Otamendi, Enzo Perez – all of them 29 or older, and all members of at
least two of the teams that fell in the finals of major tournaments in
2014, ’15 and ‘16 – did their part. Rarely was it pretty. There were
moments throughout the match where La Albiceleste could barely string
two passes together. Yet their pride was on display throughout. They
weren’t going out like that.
Mascherano denied reports of a bust-up with manager Jorge Sampaoli but
clearly the team’s elders took it upon themselves to make sure that if
this was to be their last match in Russia – or the last time they’d wear
the famous light blue-and-white shirts – it would be one they would be
able to live with.
Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir’s watch ticked closer to full time, Messi
could be seen slide tackling a ball out of play 90 yards from his own
goal. Moments later, he blocked a long pass and bled several more
seconds off the clock. After the whistle mercifully blew, Mascherano and
Messi held each other in a long embrace. Croatia had beaten Iceland in
the other game, and Argentina would join them in the second round.