Magic Messi steals the show to win over hostile Chile crowd
Argentina’s number 10 wasn’t on scoresheet against Paraguay but orchestrated 6-1 win
Lionel Messi inspired Argentina’s 6-1 Copa America semi-final win over Paraguay. Photograph: Afp
The problem with a genius like Lionel Messi is that you’re always waiting for him to perform. You can’t watch a game he plays in as you watch any other game because you’re always hoping that this will be of those days when he turns it on, and if he doesn’t you end up feeling a little cheated. Nobody felt cheated on Tuesday night, just grateful to have been there, unless you had the misfortune to be a Paraguayan defender. The Chile fans who made up most of the crowd and who had begun the game by jeering the Argentinian national anthem and chanting “Argentinos – hijos da puta” ended it in awed applause.
Argentina, in truth, didn’t play that well. They were so defensively shaky that even at 4-1 Gerardo Martino was hopping in the edge of his technical area, waving his arms in frustration. Space kept appearing in midfield. Paraguay troubled them with pace and aerial balls. There were some neat passes (and some poor finishing) from Javier Pastore. But mainly, there was Messi.
This was a stunning display, one leant an otherworldly air by the gauze of mist and smoke that fell over the ground an hour or so before kick-off, as though mortal eyes couldn’t be allowed to look directly on such wonder. He didn’t score and so his run without a goal from open play now stretches to 918 minutes for all, but that statistic now seems farcically irrelevant. Here, of the six goals, he played the final pass three times, the penultimate pass twice and the pre-penultimate pass once. He was, simply, unstoppable.
With seven minutes remaining, Messi played a one-two on the edge of the box and stumbled. His side were already 5-1 up, but he kept battling and forced the ball through for Gonzalo Higuaín to lash in the sixth. As Argentina cleared the box in celebration, there were three Paraguayans left defeated and dejected grounded in the box.
This was the newer, more powerful Messi that has emerged this season, and one who has emerged as a real leader of the side, rather than just the man who wears the armband. Alejandro Sabella, Martino’s predecessor, had given him the captaincy to make him the image of the side, an honour he had accepted on condition that Javier Mascherano did all the speeches. At this tournament, though, perhaps fired by the disappointment of the World Cup, Messi has begun to take responsibility. He had a sleepless night after the opening draw with Paraguay, and joined Mascherano and Martino in a crisis meeting. Before the penalties against Colombia, it was Messi who stood in the centre of the huddle, encouraging his side.
And here, as Argentina paused in the tunnel on their way out for the second half, it was Messi who gave the team-talk. “Everything was very tight, but we knew once we scored one, many goals would come,” he explained. “We scored an early goal, found more spaces, and then it got better. We continued to play the same way, created many chances. We got to the World Cup final, now the Copa América final, we want to win it. It doesn’t matter if I score, as long as the team does.”
Even more resonant though, with 53 minutes played, a loose ball fell between him and the Paraguay midfielder Víctor Cáceres. It seemed impossible that Cáceres would not get there first, but Messi found an extra burst of speed and not merely got to the ball first, but managed to lift it over his challenge, hopping away in a manner that recalled Maradona.
The resemblance only grew as he shrugged off Pablo César Aguilar and then nutmegged Bruno Valdez, leaving the two Paraguayans neatly stacked ion top of each other before releasing Pastore, whose shot was characteristically tame before Ángel Di María swept the rebound in. In the press box, the former Brazil defender, Ricardo Rocha, now a pundit on Globo TV, looked down; he, surely, must have seen the similarity to the moment during the 1990 World Cup when a Maradona burst led to him and Ricardo Gomes running into each other before Claudio Caniggia scored the winner, the goal celebrated in the version of Dark Moon Rising Argentina fans sang in Brazil last year.
That’s a goal that has come to haunt Argentina as the emblem of that golden time under Carlos Bilardo when Maradona was in his prime and they reached back-to-back World Cup finals. In the three years that followed, they won the Copa América twice. Since then, though, despite five Under-20 World Cups and two Olympic titles, they haven’t won a senior trophy. Messi has spoken of the “obligation” of this side to end that drought. The wait for Messi at last to produce an indelible performance in a major tournament is over; with him now taking responsibility the hope for Argentinians is that greater wait is coming to an end.