Being Lionel has had its drawbacks lately. Widely criticised for not singing the national anthem ahead of Argentina’s dismal goalless draw with Colombia last week, the world’s greatest footballer was then lambasted by team-mate Nicolas Burdisso for not chasing a ball down in the closing stages of that game. “Pendejo” (“prat”) was the insult Burdisso supposedly hurled at him as they trooped off the pitch.
There’s plenty of support for the under-fire star from the Cordoba fans at least. Chants of “Messi, Messi” ring around the stadium as Argentina line up for a make-or-break group clash with the Costa Ricans, who’ve sent an experimental U-22 team to the continental finals.
It should, but probably won’t, be easy pickings for the side coached by Sergio Batista, who’s dispensed with a 4-3-3 imitation-Barcelona formation and gone 4-2-3-1, with Messi lining up behind Higuain and flanked by Di Maria and Aguero. Adding the ballast just behind are Gago and Mascherano.
Remaining tight-lipped and poker-faced once more during the national anthem, his jaw bristling with spaghetti-western stubble, Messi immediately shuffles over to the right touchline, once his default position at Barça. Released from the shackles of Batista’s false 9 experiment, he kicks off in determined mood, though his first two runs off the wing are quickly snuffed out by Costa Rica’s packed midfield.
There’s plenty of support for the under-fire star from the Cordoba fans at least. Chants of “Messi, Messi” ring around the stadium as Argentina line up for a make-or-break group clash
Evidently given a roving brief, he picks the ball up in the centre, snapping a slide-rule pass into the path of Aguero, a defender’s toe just intercepting. Next comes a neat one-two with Gago and a shot that’s blocked, and after winning a free-kick on the right he curls the ball over the bar. Though Messi’s picking the ball up too deep to be truly threatening, the signs look good for Argentina. Listless last week, he’s full of intent today, playing off his team-mates, who are scuttling dutifully down the channels, hoping to be picked out.
Soon he’s scampering run down the right himself, Tico defenders giving chase. Checking back, he picks out Aguero on the other flank with a curling pass. The Atleti man controls and blazes over, with Higuain establishing a pattern moments later, failing to get a glance on another inviting Messi delivery.
Now stationed closer to the box, he dinks a pinpoint pass to the unmarked Higuain, who, not for the last time tonight, thrashes the ball over. The world’s greatest player is not involved in Aguero’s opening goal on the stroke of half-time, but he’s looking like Lionel again, inching his way back to his Barcelona form in Batista’s non-Barcelona formation. There’s a message in there somewhere.
Then he takes control of the game, commanding the area between the centre circle and the D
His second half begins with a trademark run that’s unceremoniously blocked by an opposing centre-half. Having taken every set-piece so far, he slaps the free-kick into the wall. Then he takes control of the game, commanding the area between the centre circle and the D and seemingly on a mission to set up as many goals for his speeding team-mates as he can.
In doing so he keeps it simple, the way he invariably does with his other team. Taking possession from Higuain outside the box, he looks up and plays in Aguero with the simplest of six-yard passes. The chance is converted and the pressure is off Argentina, the threat of elimination from their own tournament gone. Tellingly, the celebrating Aguero raises his arms and points to Messi.
When he’s not skipping through the midfield, jumping out of tackles and scampering into space, Messi’s punching passes with his instep or flicking them with the outside of his boot, mostly into the feet of Higuain, who, when he’s not firing La Pulga’s velvet-upholstered assists across the face of goal, is blasting them skywards. There’s another perfectly weighted pass into the left channel, but instead of the hapless Real Madrid striker it’s Di Maria steaming into the inviting space, thrashing Argentina’s third home in emphatic fashion.
When he’s not skipping through the midfield, jumping out of tackles and scampering into space, Messi’s punching passes with his instep or flicking them with the outside of his boot
It’s men against U-22s now, and after sending another take-me-to-bed cross the wasteful Higuain’s way, Lionel devotes some quality time to himself, spurting into the box and just overrunning the ball, and then working a beautiful move with Aguero to force a fine one-handed save from the Costa Rica keeper with a glancing back-header. The offside flag was up but it’s vintage Messi.
Rolling a heavy challenge and somehow staying on his feet, he elicits a huge cheer from the Cordoba crowd before going agonisingly close to a hat-trick of assists, substitute Lavezzi cracking his umpteenth measured pass into the left channel against a post.
At the final whistle it’s big hugs rather than insults for Messi, his grateful colleagues acknowledging who the daddy is. Stiffer tests lie ahead, but Batista has finally stumbled across a convincing formation and given his greatest asset the space and time to relocate his magical mojo.
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