Saint Petersburg: Marcos Rojo scored with a right-footed volley in the penalty box from open play. There was nothing which could reflect the chaos engulfing this Argentina team better. Rojo had no business running into the box for Gabriel Mercado’s cross. He’s a left-footed central defender. Yet, he gave the ball some leather from his ostensibly weaker foot.
Before Rojo’s intervention, in the second half of a dramatic night, the chaos had moved towards a fracas for Argentina. The Albiceleste players took turns to pick apart their own dream. A misplaced pass here, an overhit cross there. Argentina were on their way out. After months of stumbling through the confusion-addled tactics of Jorge Sampaoli, the eventual fall loomed on the horizon.
And then, as it often happens, a miracle arrived. Previously, it has assumed the shape of Lionel Messi. And even though the signs were there all evening that the familiar occurrence would repeat itself, that is not how it turned out to be. However, it was not down to a lack of trying.
Messi sang more like the canary we know him to be, the croaking displays of the previous two matches a blur on the night. It took nine minutes for Messi to confirm his pretensions — he knocked the ball off Nigerian defenders as he sought to make headway into the box — but once triggered, the genius began to emit its myriad hues.
Soon, Messi was wandering a few steps ahead of his teammates. Eleven minutes into the match, Gonzalo Higuain knocked the ball down in the hope that somebody would run on to it. It was Messi’s run but he merely looked on. His intentions became clearer when the ball was worked to him in the same move and there he was, slightly deeper but more influential. Messi shape-shifted to thread the ball. Even though it was intercepted, it became clear that he had begun to find the space which had been denied to him by Sampaoli’s tactics until Tuesday.
The 4-3-2-1 formation fielded by Argentina allowed Messi to come in to his own. The supporters were recovering their intensity too. In the 14th minute, it all came together. Ever Banega, the forgotten man who has found favour again, sent a precise ball over the top which Messi killed with his thigh before taking it forward to stroke home from a sharp angle.