Monday 24 September 2018

Kazan a tale of two number tens but it is foolhardy to write Messi off too quickly

Declaring a passing of the torch from Lionel Messi to Kylian Mbappe is premature despite the French youngster’s heroics against Argentina. Photo: Getty Images
Declaring a passing of the torch from Lionel Messi to Kylian Mbappe is premature despite the French youngster’s heroics against Argentina. Photo: Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Lionel Messi's departure from the Kazan Arena on Saturday was in keeping with his World Cup story. He was surrounded by mediocrity.

The Argentina squad took the choreographed decision to walk through the mixed zone in a procession, making it clear they would be refusing requests to chat. Javier Mascherano was the exception to the rule, with the 34-year-old stopping to confirm his international retirement.

Those with a cynical view of Jorge Sampaoli's authority in the face of a dressing room mutiny would say it was only right that one of the actual managers had their say.

Messi was positioned at midway in a peloton made up of white tracksuits. For once, perhaps, he was grateful for the movement of the players around him because their steady pace ensured there would be no awkward delays on his way out.

He will be 35 when Qatar comes around, and has already retired from international football once before, so it is entirely possible that Kazan will go down as his World Cup farewell.

Whatever his decision, this game will live in the memory. The story could be told through the emotions of the two number tens, Kylian Mbappe and Messi, and the temptation to declare it as the passing of the torch is understandable.

Electric

When the electric Mbappe wheeled away in celebration after his second goal and France's fourth, Messi was slowly trudging back from the French penalty box to the halfway line. Youth had won the day.

This was the angle the world wanted. A new star, albeit one that has changed hands for €180m so he didn't exactly come out of left field like some in the tournaments of yore.

Didier Deschamps was asked by Norwegian television if the fact that Mbappe was born in 1998 actually means that France was furnished with two trophies that year. The captain of France's World Cup winning side smiled politely and spoke of his pride that Mbappe is one of their own. Hugo Lloris paused to speak in English later and found himself talking at length about his young team-mate and not much else. "We see this every day," he said.

At the full-time whistle, the French camp had shown respect for Messi, lining up to commiserate. Paul Pogba wrapped his arms around Messi's shoulders. Others patted him on the back before going to the small pocket of French fans that were hugely outnumbered.

The one inevitability that every professional footballer faces is that there will always be someone coming after them. There is no pause option available.

The stars of the present will one day find themselves besuited in a director's box surrounded by people telling them about how good they used to be. Nobody is spared from that eventuality.

Messi and Ronaldo will both be there, maybe even striking common ground on wanting to sit away from Diego Maradona.

But Saturday's events do not mean that day is rapidly approaching. Messi's World Cup dream might be dead, but there is life in his legs.

In the dying stages of this breathless encounter, he proved as much as France relaxed with their two-goal cushion.

After being tightly marshalled as a central striker, a false nine that operated closer to the halfway line, Messi found joy deeper when Sergio Aguero was introduced. He jinked into room to dispatch a crisp through ball to the sub that led to a shot.

Then, he embarked on his own solo run that culminated with a weak strike, the kind of miss that would have been forgotten on another day. And finally, at the death, he executed a perfect cross for Aguero's header.

The right team went through, but they were given a helping hand by an Argentina side that seemed unprepared for what Mbappe could do. France's stars were well aware of it.

The prime example was Pogba's quick, 70-yard free after a foul on the edge of his own box, with the Manchester United player gambling that Mbappe would anticipate his quarterback impression. Seconds later, the kid was through on goal.

Olivier Giroud has not scored in this tournament, but his work allows Antoine Griezmann and Mbappe to interchange and look for gaps and his weight of pass for the decisive goal was perfect.

By contrast, France were so focused tracking Messi that they gave other players space, and Angel Di Maria punished them for doing so. But that was a percentage call that balanced out.

At Barcelona, Messi has thrived because there are other players on his side that occupy minds too.

When his summer break ends, and he returns to club duty without the pressure of having to carry a nation, he will mesmerise again and we will be grateful that he has only just turned 31.

One of the bizarre criticisms levelled at Messi around the defeat by Croatia was that he didn't cover a huge amount of ground. At Barcelona, there are games where his default action is walking rather than running. The ball makes it to him.

Mbappe was sensational on Saturday, but he will look back nostalgically on a battle with a calamitous defence that exposed themselves to one v one situations against his pace. Uruguay will not be as generous.

If France win this tournament, then Kazan may take on symbolic meaning, but declaring it as a passing of the torch is premature.

In reality, it just shone a light on how a team built around one man will always have a limited shelf-life.

Irish Independent

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