I better set the scene. TSN had just wrapped its Canadian World Cup coverage after a 2-1 defeat to Morocco, the third defeat for John Herdman’s poorly set-up team.
Time to take a night off.
We packed up and left Al Thumama, our last match inside a stadium, heading back to our hotel to watch Spain and Germany, on adjacent cinema screens, stroll into the last 16, while scribbling an ode to the evergreen Lionel Messi.
Not to blow my own trumpet, but I did such a comprehensive man-marking job on Messi at a Lansdowne Road friendly in 2010 that he was subbed off after 57 minutes. Get out of my pocket Mr Ballon d’Or.
That’s my truth anyway.
Seriously, the miraculous way Messi has reinvented himself, at 35 year old, as a holding midfielder who takes two touches before joining the attack is so impressive that it would be a shame if he joined Major League Soccer next year. He still has plenty to offer the European game so landing in Florida, much like he went to Paris to play for the Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain, to promote the host country’s World Cup build-up can wait until 2025. A few more seasons back at Barcelona dovetailing with Pedri and Gavi might suit him.
Shadowing him was a unique experience. He has this amazing way of doing you
As the burgers and first bucket of cold beers landed, Spain led Japan 1-0 and Germany had Costa Rica on a string, also leading 1-0.
But back to Messi and me. Shadowing him was a unique experience. He has this amazing way of doing you. He’d drop the right shoulder and scoop the ball over your leg with his left foot at the very split second you hint at the challenge. Click your fingers and he’s gone inside, bearing down on big Richard Dunne.
Christ, did Japan just equalise? Shisha smoke blurs the giant screen.
Anyway, Messi pulled this trick three times – he could have been puffing on a cigar – which got me thinking: “What would this boy do to me of a Champions League Tuesday or at a World Cup?”
What struck me from his performance against big Polish lads on Wednesday is how powerful he has become, like one of those squat French scrumhalves.
Christ: Japan 2-1 Spain. I enter the debate: “That’s a goal lads. The circumference of the ball is not over the line.” We did a segment about this recently. Andy Gray is having none of it on BeIn Sport. We forget the football as we get lost in old stories, but this is rudely interrupted by Costa Rica’ scoring. We swivel in our seats to witness the Germans demise.
What’s happening here! Costa Rica take the lead! Spain and Germany, as it stands, are both eliminated.
My Messi column goes in the bin. I love watching Spain, but they have no clue how to chase a game. Clever long balls are not in their DNA, nor can they create shots outside the box and they don’t have a scooby-do how to put crosses into their non-existent target man.
Tippy-tappy football is not going to break down two blocks of Japanese resistance. In a cruel irony, Germany sign their own death warrant and free Spain from agony by equalising and then taking the lead against Costa Rica. To remain at 2-1 for a little longer would have forced Spain to score twice or go home.
Obviously, no team can stand still in a pivotal World Cup match, but this strange Group E unravelling offers Morocco a blueprint to topple the northern neighbours next Tuesday.
It was impossible not to imagine Messi being chaired off the Lusail pitch on November 18th like Maradona in 1986 and Pele in 1970 at the Azteca
They must score early as they did against Canada. That Alphonso Davies apparently ignored Herdman’s tactics and attempted to take over the game as a number 10 allowed Morocco manager Walid Regragui to show another side of his shrewd strategic mind; the five man defensive wall, with Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat as a stopper, and Azzedine Ounahi hunting second ball could conceivably push Morocco into the quarters.
It’s a long shot, but break it down: in Hakimi, from PSG, they possess the best right back in the business and their 4-3-3 structure allows Hakim Ziyech to shine. Regragui’s tactics sussed out Croatia, Belgium and Canada, so why not Spain?
Not that I think Morocco, or Argentina for that matter, can win the World Cup. France, England or Brazil have the deepest squads.
I am talking about Casemiro, with Neymar to return, and England catching fire now Phil Foden is a starter but most of all, Kylian Mbappé – the undisputed number one – and the outstanding Antoine Griezmann will return to the France side after Didier Deschamps rested nine players for the 1-0 loss to Tunisia.
The practical side of my brain says that Argentina will be found out at some stage. The romantic side, like everybody else in Ras Abu Aboud on Wednesday, was blown away by the sight of Messi in possession as the entire 974 stadium bounced and chanted his name.
It was impossible not to imagine Messi being chaired off the Lusail pitch on November 18th like Maradona in 1986 and Pele in 1970 at the Azteca. But, man for man, France, England and Brazil currently exist on a different plain to the rest.
And fair play to the Brazilians, who are staying in our hotel, for resisting the party atmosphere in the courtyard after Spain almost followed Germany home.