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Delight & disaster as rivals start hunt

IN RIO DE JANEIRO

Keir Radnedge

Maracana is 64 years old this week. But, for its birthday, the temple of Brazilian football in Rio de Janeiro found itself suffering the indignity of an Argentinian takeover.

Not only by the raucous fans of their southern neighbour, either. Leading the invaders was the man portrayed by his adherents as the present-day usurper of the ultimate individual crown once held by Pele.

Leo Messi entered this World Cup under almost impossible pressure. He was supposed to prove himself a challenger to the world legend of O Rey, a worthy Argentinian successor to Diego Maradona and a man to seize the one great stage he had never yet commanded.

So, in all the circumstances, he and Argentina achieved a more than acceptable start with a somewhat scruffy 2-1 Group F dismissal of World Cup newcomers Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The conundrum of Messi in the blue and white stripes of Argentina, and wearing their captain’s armband, is that he never played “serious” football there; at 13 he and his family were spirited away to Barcelona.

He may have been born in Argentina but he was not even a Porteno, not born and brought up in Buenos Aires but in provincial Rosario. Then, in football terms, his stylistic education was Catalan. Even his tussles with tax authorities over his $45m-a-year earnings are with the Spanish revenue department not its equivalent in Argentina.

Thus Messi entered the blue and white cauldron of Maracana — where he had never, ever played before — with his own nationality an issue. If Argentina fail to fulfil all the massive expectations then it will not be coach Alejandro Sabella or stalwarts Pablo Zabaleta or Javier Mascherano or Angel di Maria who must bear the weight of a nation’s anger; it will be Messi.

By gratifying coincidence, Messi’s greatest rival for the status of world No. 1, Cristiano Ronaldo, found his own World Cup launch less than 24 hours later to be an unmitigated disaster.

No one would pretend that this is the greatest Argentina national team of all time or even that it bears any sort of comparison with Cesar Luis Menotti’s World Cup winners of 1978 or Carlos Bilardo’s champions of 1986.

Messi is expected, all on his own, to span the difference.

He began perfectly. Barely had he finished with the captaincy formalities when he was delivering the third-minute left-wing free kick that bobbled off Bosnian defender Sead Kolasinac and fell over the line for the fastest own goal in World Cup history (two minutes, eight seconds).

Messi, according to his (Madrid-based) detractors, has endured a poor season this past 12 months. Barcelona finished only runners-up in league and cup and were merely quarter-finalists in the Champions League, and he scored a “mere” 28 goals in La Liga.

As the match progressed, so the sense of anti-climax grew.

Argentina missed the focal attacking point of the injured Gonzalo Higuain up front and Messi tried to make amends by attempting too much on his own. Perhaps the change of tactical shape unsettled him.

Bosnia began to build their own game with more confidence. That meant play moving into Argentina’s half with Messi drifting around in no-man’s-land. Just before the interval, Messi indulged in one of those mini-slaloms into the Bosnian penalty box but he had no support and was shuffled easily out of possession.

Messi was suffering, so Argentina were suffering.

Coach Sabella, for the second half, had no option. Despite their fragility, he brought on Fernando Gago in midfield and Higuain up front. Suddenly Messi had the platform he needed.

He regained interest in the game, began finding space in which to work and then took a return pass from Higuain, teased two Bosnian defenders into falling over each other, and struck the wondrous goal he would have demanded of himself.

Sabella said: “Messi is the best player in the world whatever happens at this World Cup and one of the best of all time whatever he does at this World Cup.”

Remarkably, the goal was only Messi’s second goal in the World Cup finals and arrived a full seven years and 364 days after the first against Serbia back in Germany in 2006. Bosnia pulled one back but it was mere consolation.

Argentina were winners on the night.

Messi had won it for them. The free kick; then the goal.

That crowning glory beckons, back in Maracana. One game down. Six to go.

Poor Ronaldo, by dramatic contrast, may have only two games left, such was the damage inflicted on Portugal by Germany in Salvador.

Not only was their psyche wrecked by the scale and nature of their 4-0 defeat but they will have to write off striker Hugo Almeida and left back Fabio Coentrao to injuries and central defender Pepe to suspension.

Ronaldo will regret wasting one early opportunity before the Germans had scored. But, after that, the game — and probably this World Cup — ran away from him. Even his free kick brilliance deserted him: twice he hit the wall, once he was foiled by the brilliant reflexes of German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

Messi or Ronaldo?

Right now, in Brazil, it’s no contest.