Messi rides to the rescue, but shaky Argentina's World Cup dream looks a fantasy too far
Argentina failed to impress but were rescued by the divine left foot of Lionel Messi as his goal paved the way for a 2-0 win against Mexico.FotMob - 2 months ago
Ghosts everywhere. In the stands, where the spectre of Diego Maradona was waving his fists, wondering how Argentina could put in such a vapid performance.
On the pitch, where the shadows of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain were sprinting through the middle, looking for a pass or clearing a path for Lionel Messi.
The ghosts of Argentina's past haunted them for large parts of Saturday's game against Mexico, as the present almost became a living nightmare.
Lionel Scaloni's team were in dire danger of heading out of this World Cup after two games, the champions of South America last year vulnerable to a humbling on the global stage, until a flash of Messi magic changed everything.
A swish of that left boot from 25 yards, and the ball zipped into the bottom-right corner. It had to be him.
On the night Messi matched Maradona's Argentina record of 21 World Cup appearances, he also moved level with El Diego on eight goals in his career at the finals, two behind national team record holder Gabriel Batistuta. For Messi, those World Cup goals have all come in the group stage, something he came to Qatar to change and still might.
Losing to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday was bad enough for Argentina, but at least there would be a reaction against the Mexicans. Perhaps it might be the spur they needed, and perhaps it could still be Messi's World Cup.
Those were theories that were widely voiced, yet for an hour they looked to be utter bunkum.
Even at 90 minutes, with a 2-0 scoreline barely reflecting the flow of the game, you were left fearing Argentina might find a way to trip up against Poland next time out. If they finish second in this group, it will almost certainly be France waiting for them in the second round, and on the evidence so far, Argentina would be mauled by Les Bleus.
Messi and Co arrived at this tournament on a 36-game unbeaten run, but such has been their languid start you would have been forgiven for guessing they played all 36 of those games in the last month.
Here they were off the pace from the start, lacking any obvious strategy, down on energy, praying for Messi to conjure something. It had an air of Barcelona in the final days of Ronald Koeman's reign about it.
Scaloni has backed Lautaro Martinez to be his lone striker, and there might have to be a rethink on that score. Martinez has a shot conversion rate of 12.9 per cent this season for Inter, which is not ideal for a striker, and has been finding the net at club level every 206.25 minutes.
He has Edin Dzeko up alongside him for the Nerazzurri, who has been more clinical with his chances, but with Argentina it is Martinez who leads the line ostensibly alone.
This team used to have an embarrassment of attacking riches, and they desperately miss prime era Higuain and Aguero.
Martinez has a strong scoring record for his country, but he was ineffective here, his second game at his first World Cup.
When a clear chance came his way in the 40th minute, after a fine cross from the right by Di Maria, he planted a header way off target. It was his one goal attempt. Argentina only had five shots all night, which was still one more than Mexico. Their combined total of shots is the fewest ever recorded in a World Cup, based on studies of matches going back as far as 1966.
There was a moment late in the first half that looked to be typifying Argentina's night: Mexico's Alexis Vega had a free-kick well saved by Emiliano Martinez shortly before half-time and Argentina went on the break, with Messi looking to dance down the right and make something happen.
Except, those feet don't dance as quickly as they once did, and the ball was soon swept into touch. At Paris Saint-Germain, with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe for company, the gradual decline of Messi is not quite so obvious. He can be a joy to behold in that company still, but when all the attention of defenders is on him, as it inevitably was this time, he was being too easily crowded out and barged off the ball.
In the second half, Erick Gutierrez hacked down Messi when he got close to the edge of the box and began to sprint, and Argentina had the chance they wanted. Messi punted it over the crossbar, and you just sensed it would not be his night.
And then Messi decided that, actually, yes it would be.
At the age of 35, he cannot win a World Cup by himself, but he can still come up with magical moments, and it was a goal for the career showreels, a stroke of familiar genius at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, which will stage this tournament's final.
For the second time in his career, Messi has scored in six consecutive international games for his country. He remains a joy of a player, and his country's biggest hope.
Substitute Enzo Fernandez added a late second goal that flattered Argentina, and it made the Benfica player, at 21 years and 313 days, the youngest Argentina scorer at a World Cup since the 18-year-old Messi announced himself at the 2006 finals. The past might still be a haunting influence, but here was a glimpse into the future.
A smiling Messi celebrated with relieved supporters at the end. For just a fleeting moment in this game, he had been afforded a yard of space and made it count.
Friday marked two years since the death of Maradona. He is Argentina's past, yet you still almost expect television cameras to pan to him in the stands.
Messi has spent his life trying to live up to the legend of Maradona, and that shared super-natural brilliance has just about kept Argentina's hopes alive in Qatar.