Belo Horizonte, Brazil – Lionel Messi scored an injury-time goal that gave Argentina a by-then-unexpected win over Iran, but he only found the net after another lacklustre performance.
“When you have Messi, anything is possible,” Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said after the game.
While the goal appears to support that view, it is a fact that against Iran Messi was more similar to what he has been like this season at Barcelona than to what Argentina expect of him at the World Cup.
And it is also a fact that, like him, Argentina failed to perform in line with what one might expect from a serious candidate to lift the World Cup trophy on July 13.
While Sabella gave up half-way through their 2-1 over Bosnia-Herzegovina his more defence-oriented tactics to return to the 4-3-3 system that Messi himself prefers, an attacking line with the Barcelona striker, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain and surging midfielder Angel Di Maria failed time and again to trouble Iran’s crowded, well-positioned defence.
“We are the first to know that the level of play is not the best we can do,” Messi said after the game.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz did not seek to man-mark Messi, but instead subjected him to the pressure of three or four of his men whenever he had the ball.
On the right, his team-mates could hardly find him and he needed to drop to the wing of the midfield to find space.
Messi’s play became increasingly slow and conspicuously failed to flow. With Higuain stuck between Iran’s centre-backs, Di Maria and Aguero getting tangled up on the left and Messi in isolation there was no one to connect the irregular Fernando Gago with Argentina’s star-studded forward pack.
Messi’s preferred system does not appear to make anyone better.
Di Maria does not perform as at Real Madrid, Aguero hardly looks like the Manchester City goalscorer, Higuain does not perform as the world-class striker, and Messi is far from the player that many believe is the best in the world. Argentina are of course most worried about their superstar striker.
His fantastic late goal against Bosnia was supposed to take away the pressure and allow Messi’s known genius to shine through, but it did not happen.
Right until that fantastic injury-time goal, he remained the erratic, subdued, sometimes even apathetic player he has been for much of this season at Barcelona.
As the match came to a close, with Argentina fans singing “Lio, Lio” in the hope that their genius would shine, Messi did produce a goal that gave his team a win.
However, conclusions on the match inevitably go beyond the final score.
“Thank God, the little one rubbed the lamp,” said keeper Sergio Romero.
If Messi really does want to go down in history as a man who won the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium, he will need to re-ignite the spark that has earned him worldwide admiration more than once per game.