Saturday 16 December 2017

Dion Fanning: Messi makes his mark at the Maracana

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring a goal against Bosnia during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring a goal against Bosnia during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro

The gripping opening days of the World Cup have created understandable levels of excitement but the tournament still needed to hear from the world’s best player.

Since Thursday, Neymar, Robben, Van Persie, Pirlo and Benzema have all made declarations that this tournament could be about thrilling attacking menace but in Rio on Sunday, they waited for Lionel Messi.

It was Rio’s first game and it was an opportunity for Messi to add his name to the list and, significantly, to do it in the Maracana.

Outside Argentinian fans made no secret how they viewed their hierarchy. One carried a banner with three portraits-Maradona, Messi and the pope. Underneath it read, ‘Dios...Messi-ah...Francis’.

Maradona is unlikely to lose his position as the deity. There were a number of short fat men trying to impress as Maradona lookalikes outside the stadium with varying degrees of success so, apart from everything else, he has given their lives added meaning.  But this tournament feels like the time when a definitive judgement will be made on Messi’s standing in his country.

For most of the game, Messi played as if he understood this responsibility but was finding it a burden. He ran at the Bosnia and Herzegovina players whenever he could but they had detailed Muhamed Besic to close Messi down and he did so with a success rate which must have even surprised him.

“It’s not easy to play in the first match of the World Cup because of what it means, the anxiety, the nerves.” Messi said afterwards.

He wasn’t helped by the Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella’s decision to leave Gonzalo Higuain on the bench.

It would be tempting to say that he couldn't have picked a more sympathetic audience for an opening turn. Argentinian fans were in the stadium in staggering numbers and made an even more phenomenal noise, although it would be hard to claim that a game at the Maracana was like a home game for Argentina.

If Argentina are to be successful- if they win, their victory is unlikely to have the same pacifying effect as a Brazilian triumph - Messi will need to have a good World Cup.

His only World Cup goal before Sunday’s game had come in his first appearance in the competition in 2006 so this opening game was more of a burden for him.

Messi had spent most of the first half running at the Bosnian defence but with only Sergio Aguero in front of Messi, the defenders were rarely pulled out of position and could close him down. Aguero was also tightly marked meaning that Messi sometimes had no option but to dribble.

Argentina’s half-time lead fooled nobody. Messi had taken the free-kick which hit Sead Kolasinac and bounced in but Higuain and Fernando Gago were needed for the second half.

For fifteen minutes, the story didn’t look like changing and the post-match verdicts were being prepared: Messi was trying too hard; Messi had demanded greater involvement in the side and was now doing too much.

In the opening minutes of the second half, it was, however, also possible to detect a greater freedom in Messi’s play. He looked more relaxed and was varying his play, setting up Aguero for once chance but still searching for the moment he wanted and he sensed the crowd wanted.

When he had misjudged a free-kick attempt completely, he bit the top of his jersey and looked for a moment as if it was too much.

But burdens can lift quickly and when Messi picked the ball up in a deep position after 65 minutes, things changed.

He moved forward and knocked a ball to Higuain who, in passing it straight back to him, gave Messi a glimpse at an opening. He took it, like he always takes these opportunities, moving across the Bosnian defence who were now so panicked by the inevitability of what was to come that two of them smashed into each other, making the move seem like slapstick.

But Messi was intent on high art and he kept going and curled the ball in from the edge of the box. It went in off the post, adding an air of mystery and suspense to this magnificent moment.

From then on, Messi was free. He chipped a beautiful pass for Higuain and then there was a breathless hush as he broke from deep but the attack broke down. There was another when he was taken down by a heavy challenge.

Vedad Ibisevic’s late goal for Bosnia and Herzegovina caused some anxiety but Argentina took the points which was the most essential thing of all.

In the end, maybe even the Brazilian fans in the stadium who chanted “five times” to remind Argentina about their differing World Cup histories had got what they came to see. They had seen Messi score at the Maracana in the World Cup finals. The tournament was doing fine without that moment, but nobody would suggest it doesn’t help.

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