A Messi effort that would more than pass muster

Dec 11, 2022 01:15 AM IST

Before the chaos of cards, comeback and penalties it was the no-look reverse pass that lit up Argentina-Netherlands quarter-final

That pass. It nearly became a footnote, given Netherlands’ stirring comeback from 0-2 down to 2-2 and the flurry of cards (17 yellows and a red) but by not foozling their penalties, Argentina ensured it didn’t.

On Tuesday, when Messi steps out against Croatia, it will be his 25th World Cup match, equalling the most by Germany’s Lothar Matthaeus. (REUTERS)
On Tuesday, when Messi steps out against Croatia, it will be his 25th World Cup match, equalling the most by Germany’s Lothar Matthaeus. (REUTERS)

“We are lucky that he (Nahuel Molina) scored,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni of the first goal. And not for the first time here, he said: “Leo is the best player of all time so we are glad to have him.”

Like it often happens, when Lionel Messi got the ball in the 35th minute, he didn’t have many options. He had got the ball from Molina around 40 yards from goal. There was a teammate on the far left but passing to him could have meant it being cut out by Denzel Dumfries. Another was closer but was facing the Argentina goal and nearly sandwiched between two men in orange. Messi could have run parallel to goal and try something or try to win a free kick. But from a position where he couldn’t even see Molina and without breaking stride, Messi twisted and picked him out with a reverse pass nutmegging Nathan Ake.

Molina stabbed home to give Argentina the lead. Messi made it 2-0 with a penalty, taking his World Cup tally to 10, joint-highest for Argentina with Gabriel Batistuta. Netherlands came back with two goals from Wout Weghorst who scored twice the second off a free-kick with what was virtually the last shot of the game before extra-time.

In a contest that has over the years seen a number of memorable games at World Cup finals, this moment could be on the top. Mind you, this includes Johan Cruyff running rings around Argentina in 1974, the teams playing a World Cup final four years later - Mario Kempes was at Lusail Stadium on Friday, looking more like a corporate high-up than the long-haired striker with a flair for goals - a semi-final in 2014 and a sublime piece of control and skill from Dennis Bergkamp in 1998 that Memphis Depay said was part of his growing-up days.

But it is also saying a lot about Messi’s extra-sensory perception. The World Cup saw it against Mexico with a goal that resuscitated Argentina’s campaign. And again, on Friday.

In terms of influencing a game, it could be on a par with the pass from Diego Maradona that freed Claudio Caniggia to score in the 1-0 win against Brazil in the round-of-16 game in the 1990 World Cup (Brazil have been to the quarter-finals of every edition since; their tally of 14 being joint-top with Germany). Or the pass from Maradona which Jorge Burruchaga latched on to and scored the deciding goal in the final of the 1986 World Cup.

But Maradona had both Caniggia and Burruchaga in his line of vision; they were either in front (Burruchaga) or on the side (Caniggia). Molina was not making this a no-look pass that Ronaldinho, the player Messi looked up to in Barcelona, would excel at.

Maybe Messi wouldn’t have played that pass had Ake not left the defence to get the ball. Ake’s doing that led to a sliver of space that Messi saw and exploited.

"Diego is watching us from heaven. He is pushing us and I really hope this stays the same until the end," Messi said after the match. "When Lautaro scored and we qualified there was a huge joy. It was a weight off our chest."

The Messi of 35 tends to be on the margins of a game, walk around when football is about running. He is rarely involved in winning the ball back. All this can make it difficult for his team - Argentina or PSG will never say that but forwards of today are not expected to play like Messi does. Messi had 20 touches on the ball in the first half. Only Emiliano Martinez, Argentina’s hero in the shootout with two saves, and Netherlands forward Steven Bergwijn had less.

It makes things doubly hard for opponents. How do you shadow a player who can be this uninvolved?

In a match so full of acrimony that Messi yelled at Weghorst in the mixed zone and he and Emiliano Martinez criticised referee Antonio Mateu, let Louis van Gaal be the last word on that pass. “That was a great goal,” he said before announcing he was stepping down as Netherlands coach. “Also, a great pass by Messi.”

On Tuesday, when Messi steps out against Croatia, it will be his 25th World Cup match, equalling the most by Germany’s Lothar Matthaeus. The record will be his if Argentina make the final. Another pass like that and they could well do that.


    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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