This might just be his World Cup after all. Lionel Messi must battle football opponents and the sands of time in equal measure this month but here he dismissed both with a flourish that, whatever happens to him and Argentina from here, will be treasured by those privileged to bear witness. His side were a slip away from oblivion on an intense, pressured and niggly night where potential ramifications seemed to stifle everyone in view. Messi was firmly among that number until breaching a limited Mexico with a thrilling goal that guarantees him at least one more dance on this stage and has the potential to change the course of this tournament.
Messi’s left-footed finish was outdone aesthetically by a sumptuous late curler from Enzo Fern?ndez but his 64th minute opener was for the ages nonetheless. It was out of keeping with an occasion on which little had come off. There had been sighs when he sent a wayward pass over the left touchline but then, after ?ngel Di Mar?a had clipped a deliberate ball across from the opposite side, the tenor shifted emphatically.
Di Mar?a had located a rare sliver of space 22 yards out but Messi’s first touch, cushioning the ball to set up the shot, was simple yet masterful poetry. It meant he could take aim before a diving H?ctor Herrera could block, raking a precise low drive to Guillermo Ochoa’s left and heralding pandemonium. Argentina would have been sent home had they lost: there was no chance of that now and the game’s remainder brought reminders of how compelling this team may look when cutting loose.
Six days after its opening, this felt like the first big ticket event of Qatar 2022. It is difficult to suspend one’s profound unease around the foundations on which this competition was built but, taking it purely on its own merits, the atmosphere inside this gaping arena was nothing short of electric. The host nation could not have asked for a more thrilling audiovisual display to show its global audience: the hymns from galleries flowing with light blue echoed under the roof and were almost matched in volume from the cacophony emitted by large pockets of Mexicans, outnumbered but insistently present, clad in green.
Every one of them knew the stakes. So did those on the field and there was evident appetite to show it. Within seven minutes Alexis Vega, the Mexico forward, had left Gonzalo Montiel writhing in exaggerated agony with a flung arm and dumped Rodrigo De Paul on his backside when chasing a pass down the flank. Soon De Paul found himself the centre of attention again, thudded into by the 36 year-old Andr?s Guardado, and if Mexico lacked edge in their attacking forays they were happy to compensate by way of snap and snarl.
N?stor Araujo proved the point next, leaving Marcos Acu?a in a heap with a challenge that took ball with a sizeable chunk of man. De Paul, surely feeling victimised by now, was crunched behind by Vega near Mexico’s left corner flag and Argentina howled when H?ctor Moreno appeared to check Messi off the ball.
That is a distillation of the opening period’s rap sheet, and more or less its action, although Argentina were far from angels themselves. The right-back Montiel, one of five newcomers to Lionel Scaloni’s starting lineup, showed as much just before half-time when sending Erick Guti?rrez, who had recently replaced the injured Guardado, flying as he burst into space. But their greater preoccupation was to find a semblance of rhythm and, by the break, it had comprehensively eluded them.
Had Scaloni changed too much? They showed little cohesion despite an improved share of territory as the half continued, the decision to drop Leandro Paredes from the midfield looking particularly suspect. Messi sought pockets of space but found one of Mexico’s three centre-backs, usually Moreno, stepping out to smother. He managed to nod ambitiously over and forced Ochoa to punch away an angled set-piece; Lautaro Mart?nez was wayward with a headed half-chance but the most eyecatching moment came at the other end when Emiliano Mart?nez, perhaps keen to offer the cameramen a spectacle away from the surrounding collage, dived to catch Vega’s free-kick.
The quality had to be better. Or maybe it did not, because the tension and aversion to defeat were plainly inhibiting both sides. Four minutes after the restart Argentina threatened their slickest move yet when Alexis Mac Allister, another beneficiary of Scaloni’s reshuffle, neatly sent Messi towards the box only for Guti?rrez to dive in and earn a booking. Messi drifted the free-kick high to audible groans. The concern grew louder when Messi and Lautaro Mart?nez failed to read each other, the former finding only the advertising hoardings.
Ye of little faith. Messi quickly rolled back the years and then passed to Fern?ndez for the cherry on top.