A success and some hope.
If a constant line throughout Lionel Messi’s career has been that he seems to have been dropped into the game from another plane, here it came down to this game to finally elevate it and lead Argentina into the qualifying places.
His superb goal to beat Mexico wasn’t so much out of this world as it was out of this game. It was a moment of true individual inspiration totally disconnected from the overall game, which made it all the more essential.
That also made it one of the moments of this World Cup so far, before Enzo Fernández followed up with one of the World Cup goals so far.
Qatar will now be forever associated with another moment in football history, and that from one of Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassadors.
It’s the power of sportswashing, distilled into the power of that shot.
Argentina are going to need a lot more than that if they are to do justice to their previous status as potential champions.
The only thing that can be said about Lionel Scaloni’s team is that they are clearly more influenced by form and psychology than almost any other side, and this was a huge confidence boost. The way Messi’s clean, low shot just entered the net furthered the feeling that things were finally working out. You could see again the course of belief in Argentina. You could see it in the way Fernández took the ball for that finishing blow.
They were playing with a conviction and confidence more recognizable from that long unbeaten run that ended at the hands of Saudi Arabia this week.
It helped that Mexico finally had to come out and play, if that’s the correct description. The only pity is that such a bad team can still make it to the knockout rounds. It is the worst Mexican team in a World Cup in decades. They had no ambition and for a long time they brought Argentina down to their level.
The problem for the South American champions was that, before Messi’s goal, they were not far above him. The contrast with what followed and the quality of the goals was very striking.
Both teams were essentially fighting for survival in this World Cup at the start, but that got too literal. The game degenerated almost instantly into a continuous exchange of fouls, dunks and hacked punts. It was ugly, in every way.
At one point in the first half, Mexico played a ball down the right, which normally did not go near one of their attackers. Lisandro Martínez had time to comfortably bring the ball down, but instead he simply knocked it out of play.
It summed up the first half. Why try to use your ability when there’s some aggression to show?
Argentina tried to play more soccer, but the problem was that they weren’t very good at it. When you compare their first hour to what Spain was able to do against Costa Rica, it was like a different game. It was almost like a different era. It seemed Argentina had never played in any kind of tactical attacking form before, with no one really knowing where the others were going or what moves they were making.
That dislocation is compounded by the loss of Giovani Lo Celso, who is not at this World Cup, and he assured that initially they did not appear to have any midfield here. Against Saudi Arabia, they were unable to exert any control. And, this time, they weren’t even being pressured. They were making mistakes on their own.
With Mexico sitting stubbornly, it meant that much of the game was about Messi lifting the ball too far from goal, hitting someone but then having to give it to them and Guillermo Ochoa’s defense launching Argentina into a cross from the right that usually falls short. He launched into the stands.
It was somewhat desperate.
Argentina was also increasingly desperate. There was only one man they could turn to. She took a step forward.
If this is to be Messi’s World Cup at last, the big number 10 offered exactly the kind of match-winning excellence that marks such campaigns. He also had the effect of making everyone around him play better. It was seldom more required.
Argentina still needs to beat Poland to be sure, although a draw may be enough depending on Mexico boring Saudi Arabia into submission.
They couldn’t do it to Messi. He had too much life, too much class. Everything means that his country has hope again.