Rio de Janeiro: Messi at Maracana: What an event. This was part-homage to one of the game’s greats and part-launch of Argentina’s World Cup campaign.
The two themes were inevitably intertwined as Lionel Messi embarked on his mission, using his phenomenal footballing capabilities to try to guide his country to victory in these finals that are already being hailed as one of the finest ever.
The tone of the tournament has been on attacking and here it was Messi’s turn. He was short of his highest standards, short of the brilliance that has defined his Barcelona career but he still created Argentina’s first and then scored their second, giving the feeling of a special cameo being performed in front of an audience of 74,738, the majority enrapt by his work.
It was astonishing to think that this was only his second-ever World Cup goal in nine games. Messi’s majesty in the shirt of Barcelona has rarely been repeated in the famous strip of Argentina but he demonstrated some of his Camp Nou class after 65 minutes, racing in from the right to score, exchanging passes with Gonzalo Higuain, steering the ball away from the chasing Muhamed Besic, and ignoring a crazy, badly-executed attempted challenge by Ermin Bicakcic. Besic and Bicakic lay in a tangle on the grass as Messi took another couple of strides across the D before shooting in off a slight deflection and the post.
A birdseye view of the scene taken by a photographer captured the wreckage Messi left in his wake, men in blue shirts scattered around the box, helpless figures bowing before his genius. Sergio Aguero was the first to reach the celebrating Messi, followed by Angel Di Maria. The fans simply chanted “olé, olé, olé, olé, Messi, Messi”.
He has delivered. This World Cup has been given such verve by the counter attacking of so many teams but it also needs the stars to shine as Neymar did for Brazil, as Arjen Robben did for Holland. Now Messi has responded to he challenge, also setting the tone of individual excellence, of the expression of talent, for others.
All eyes had been on Messi. All weekend, Argentinian fans had been arriving at Copacabana beach, parking their blue-and-white-painted camper vans, enjoying time in the bars and on that vast stretch of sand before heading to Maracana to pay homage to their little No. 10.
Some walked to this historic ground, weaving between the gridlocked traffic, hurrying towards the turnstiles, eager to get a glimpse of Messi at Maracana. Pairings don’t come much more stellar.
It felt a quasi-religious experience. Messi’s appearance on the huge screens, leaving the Argentina dressing-room, lifted the rapture levels. His arrival on the pitch was greeted with thousands of camera phones charting his every step, the lights spreading across the terraces like beacons on cliffs.
This was more than Messi at Maracana of course. That was the main theme but Bosnia-Herzegovina had ambitions of their own. Edin Dzeko wore a look on his face during the national anthems of a man meaning business. Yet it was his Manchester City teammate Aguero who had the first touch, who played the ball off to Messi as if signalling the chain of command, the tactics. Give the ball to Messi.
When Aguero was then fouled out wide, Messi took control, curling in the free-kick with his left foot, the ball clipping Marcos Rojo and carrying on across goal. It caught Sead Kolasinac, the Schalke defender and bounced in. Argentina are dangerous enough anyway, particularly when the ball is with Messi, Aguero or Di Maria, without them being gifted goals.
Messi was playing slightly off Aguero, even tracking back and fouling Zvjezdan Misimovic. The ball kept coming to Messi, guided to him by Maxi Rodriguez, then Di Maria. There was 1-2 with Javier Mascherano and a drive through the middle until he ran into a thick blue line.
Yet this fine attacking side of Alejandro Sabella has a weakness at the back, a vulnerability almost exploited when Izet Hajrovic sprinted through but was denied by Sergio Romero, who then pushed away a shot from Senad Lulic. Bosnia were determined to spoil the Messi party.
Messi and Aguero strode down the tunnel for the second half deep in conversation. The hopes of a nation weighs on their slim shoulders. Their understanding is key. Yet they missed Higuain in the opening period, giving more of a spearhead to their attack.
The No. 9 arrived at the break, taking up a position alongside Aguero with Messi in the hole. Fernando Gago also came on, playing in midfield alongside Mascherano, bringing more creativity. Hugo Campagnaro and Rodriguez made way.
Bosnia continued to worry Argentina, especially when the ball was with Hajrobic, who was twice denied by Romero. There was also a real inventiveness at Bosnian corners, the ball often angled away from the area for late-arriving players to try to catch Argentina out.
Messi began to take control. Messi’s pass to Di Maria was then intercepted. Then Messi embarked on one of those scamper surges again, feeding the ball right to Aguero, whose low shot flew straight at Begovic. When Aguero was clattered by Emir Spahic, Messi curled the free-kick over. He just couldn’t impose himself, often unable to escape Bosnian marking. And then came that goal.
A reminder of Argentina’s Achilles’ heel, their defence, was highlighted with Bosnia scoring through Vedad Ibesivic late on but Argentina held on. Messi’s mission is underway.
Argentina: Sergio Romero, Pablo Zabaleta, Hugo Campagnaro (Fernando Gago 46), Ezequiel Garay, Marcos Rojo, Federico Fernandez; Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez (Gonzalo Higuain 46), Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero (Lucas Biglia, 87)
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Asmir Begovic, Mensur Mujdza (Vedad Ibisevic, 69), Emir Spahic, Ermin Bicakcic, Sead Kolasinac, Izet Hajrovic (Edin Visca, 71), Muhamed Besic, Miralem Pjanic, Senad Lulic, Zvjezdan Misimovic (Haris Medunjanin, 74), Edin Dzeko
Man of the Match: Lionel Messi
Referee: Joel Aguilar (Slovenia)