Saturday 21 July 2018

Three touches of genius

It was nonsense to suggest Messi wasn't performing but, in a moment against Nigeria, he silenced all doubters, writes Miguel Delaney

Lionel Messi controls the ball with the outside of his left thigh after a pass from Ever Banega. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace
Lionel Messi controls the ball with the outside of his left thigh after a pass from Ever Banega. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace

It was the only response possible, from the only player in the world so routinely capable of the impossible.

Or at least impossible to anyone else but Leo Messi.

After a week of ludicrous talk about an inability to do it in a World Cup, and all manner of hysterical debate about his international legacy, the Argentine great went and did something for the ages.

The goal against Nigeria was really that good, the importance for his country that profound.

The three-touch, technically-perfect manner of it instantly drew comparisons to Dennis Bergkamp against this very international side in 1998, and while it didn't quite have the escalated wider stakes of a last-minute, quarter-final winner, it meant everything to Argentina given the situation they found themselves in.

Something had changed for them, as Messi sublimely displayed an ability inherent to him.

With his second touch, Messi takes the ball away from closing defender Kenneth Omeruo. Photo: Patrick Smith/Fifa
With his second touch, Messi takes the ball away from closing defender Kenneth Omeruo. Photo: Patrick Smith/Fifa

Exhibition

The goal that meant everything to Argentina was also the exhibition of the single quality that really makes Messi so wondrous, that truly elevates him as a player beyond anyone else.

It is the fundamental first principle of the sport, the core building block of the game… but one that the No 10 is better at than anyone, maybe in history: that is basic control of the ball - his touch.

For most players it's mere manipulation of the ball, for him it's mastery.

Messi takes that first principle to a peak, and to an art form, but that without any aesthetic embellishments.

This is why it might be his greatest ability, too, rather than just one he is better at than anyone else.

Despite the Nigerian defender’s best efforts, he can’t get close enough to prevent Messi finding the net with his third touch. Photo: Gabriel Rossi/Getty
Despite the Nigerian defender’s best efforts, he can’t get close enough to prevent Messi finding the net with his third touch. Photo: Gabriel Rossi/Getty

Messi has a minimalism that still has absolutely maximum effect. His technical perfection ensures that every touch is merely the most efficient means to his desired effect. There are never any unnecessary frills or flourishes, but what he does is all the more amazing for that.

This goal against Nigeria was an extreme distillation of all this, not least because of what his team required, and the requirements of the situation.

Ever Banega had himself played a brilliant pass, but one that was all the more brilliant because it was so tailored to Messi, and so designed by a deep knowledge of what his old childhood team-mate can do.

The vast majority of other players would likely have still had too much to do, such was the necessary pace of the pass and constrained space increasingly limited by goalkeeper Francis Uzoho and defender Kenneth Omeruo.

Messi, however, instinctively knew what to do, and probably all that could be done. He first so deftly cushioned the ball with his thigh, to take the pace out of the pass and completely bring the ball under his control.

It's just no one else would have quite brought this level of control. Had Messi allowed the ball to drop to the ground, it very likely would have been enough for Omeruo to get the drop on him and nick the ball away.

The sixth-sense awareness of this in the split-second is something else that makes Messi so sensational.

What really shows he's on a different plane was that his next touch was all in the same movement, and yet of an even higher quality itself, so perfectly setting up the opportunity of a shot.

It took the breath away, took him away from Omeruo, and took him on… even if he still had to take it on his "weaker" right foot.

No matter. Deft control was followed by powerful abandon, as the ball was dispatched into the corner.

Messi looked up in celebration, above him only sky.

The goal wasn't, for once, Argentina's moment of delivery.

There was still so much more to come, but that was almost the point. In finally scoring and showing his best, Messi also proved to the rest of the squad that one of the many problems that had afflicted this squad had been lifted; that it wasn't all going wrong.

That fostered belief. That changed things. There was a new energy around Argentina. There was a new saviour, as Marcos Rojo stepped up.

There was then the ironic image of the defender carrying Messi on his back. They had now helped him.

It was the only possible response.

Everything came from his perfect touch, just as everything in his game follows from his perfect control.

That's what really elevates him. That's why he can do what would be impossible to anyone else.

Independent News Service

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