Lionel Messi’s genius shines against Nigeria, helps Argentina extend stay in Russia

Marcos Rojo scored with a right-footed volley in the penalty box from open play. There was nothing which could reflect the chaos engulfing this Argentina team better. Rojo had no business running into the box for Gabriel Mercado’s cross. He’s a left-footed central defender. Yet, he gave the ball some leather from his ostensibly weaker foot.

Before Rojo’s intervention, in the second half of a dramatic night, the chaos had moved towards a fracas for Argentina. The Albiceleste players took turns to pick apart their own dream. A misplaced pass here, an overhit cross there. Argentina were on their way out. After months of stumbling through the confusion-addled tactics of Jorge Sampaoli, the eventual fall loomed on the horizon.

And then, as it often happens, a miracle arrived. Previously, it has assumed the shape of Lionel Messi. And even though the signs were there all evening that the familiar occurrence would repeat itself, that is not how it turned out to be. However, it was not down to a lack of trying.

Lionel Messi celebrates after the Group D match between Argentina and Nigeria. APLionel Messi celebrates after the Group D match between Argentina and Nigeria. AP
Messi sang more like the canary we know him to be, the croaking displays of the previous two matches a blur on the night. It took nine minutes for Messi to confirm his pretensions — he knocked the ball off Nigerian defenders as he sought to make headway into the box — but once triggered, the genius began to emit its myriad hues.

Soon, Messi was wandering a few steps ahead of his teammates. Eleven minutes into the match, Gonzalo Higuain knocked the ball down in the hope that somebody would run on to it. It was Messi’s run but he merely looked on. His intentions became clearer when the ball was worked to him in the same move and there he was, slightly deeper but more influential. Messi shape-shifted to thread the ball. Even though it was intercepted, it became clear that he had begun to find the space which had been denied to him by Sampaoli’s tactics until Tuesday.

The 4-3-2-1 formation fielded by Argentina allowed Messi to come in to his own. The supporters were recovering their intensity too. In the 14th minute, it all came together. Ever Banega, the forgotten man who has found favour again, sent a precise ball over the top which Messi killed with his thigh before taking it forward to stroke home from a sharp angle.

Diego Maradona looked up to the sky and said “gracias (thank you)”. Many Argentinean fans looked towards Messi and said the same. Their hero had run to a corner on the ground, collapsed on his knees, and lifted his arms to the dark, vast ceiling above — gratitude offered to the same spirit that Maradona evoked. It was the 100th goal of this World Cup; Argentina had scored only two of them but its significance was lost on nobody.

Messi proceeded to strike the post a little later, calming fears which had acquired a life of their own over the past few days. If there was a rebellion within the squad, it had spurred the Argentineans to prove that they had suddenly not turned into footballers of doubtful pedigree. Much like the myth about Japanese workers, the Albiceleste players were making a point by working harder. After the match, Sampaoli called his charges, “true rebels.”

It was the effort which aroused the partisan crowd. Sampaoli said he felt at home and the 60,000-plus crowd was indeed overwhelmingly blue and white. Strange, then, that Argentina could not find within themselves the energy to keep the fight going in the second half. Messi tried to make sense of the dip afterwards. “We thought the second half was going to be similar. But they got the penalty and scored, so we got nervous. We had the impression that time was going faster (thereafter)” said Messi, thoughtfully.

Time was indeed slipping away and Argentina wore a harried look. It was a stunning contrast from the first half when Messi was belting out his greatest hits — ambling past opponents, shaping to shoot outside the box from his left foot, striking free kicks with sweet venom — and the crowd sang with him. The concert was sickening now, with cackling sounds of help more likely to be heard than a rhapsodic song of revival.

Nigeria had been consumed by the fear of Messi in the first period but they could finally look the opponent in its eye. The majority inside the Krestovky Stadium shook feverishly. Argentina’s fans seemed to be waiting for a massacre of their collected aspirations. Messi tried to change the mood but it was not going to be within him. Visions of familiar heartbreaks returned. Higuain, just like four years ago in the final, fluffed his lines when presented with an opportunity to right the wrongs.

By then, Sampaoli had also returned to the bone of contention. Despite all the misgivings over a three-man defence, the Argentina manager sought comfort in his old beliefs when he threw Sergio Aguero on for Nicolas Tagliafico. The tactical chaos of the defeat against Croatia, though, had not been forgotten. The disorder persisted but it also liberated the team in the most unexpected of ways. Rojo proved to be the support act in Messi’s concert.

There was still time for another track to be sung. The victory song arrived minutes before full time as news spread across the ground that Croatia had taken a crucial lead against Iceland. On a night defined by tension, there was to be no anxiety at the final whistle. Argentina were in control of their destiny. Argentina were alive.