x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Lionel Messi has scored a World Cup goal. Now what?

Lionel Messi scored Argentina's winning goal against Bosnia, but the critics will not quieten until he wins the World Cup, writes Gary Meenaghan from Natal.

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring against Bosnia at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. Matthias Hangst / Getty Images
Lionel Messi celebrates scoring against Bosnia at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. Matthias Hangst / Getty Images

NATAL // The question before kick-off was simple: Lionel Messi, the magician with the sweet left foot, has picked up the rather impressive habit of scoring goals — lots of them — but can he do it on a warm Sunday night at the Maracana? The answer, provided in the 65th minute of Argentina’s 2-1 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, is yes.

Messi’s international record is often levelled against him as a reason why he is not worthy of turning the Pele-Maradona duopoly into a triumvirate. Sure, for Barcelona, he has scored 354 in 419 matches, but for his country he arrived in Brazil with a goals-to-games ratio of just 0.44, a return lower than Neymar, Didier Drogba, Edin Dzeko, Robin van Persie, Miroslav Klose and Luis Suarez.

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The most contemporary player Messi is most commonly compared to is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid forward has a solid reputation in Portugal where he captains his country and is seen to be as important — if not more — for them than he is for his domestic side. What is his goals-to-games ratio? The same as Messi’s: 0.44.

At least it was.

Messi’s performance on Sunday night against World Cup debutants Bosnia was not his best. It was not even close to his best. But his goal, which proved to be the difference between the two sides, was as good a strike we will to see this month. Naturally, it improved his ratio.

In the first half, the 26 year-old looked lost up front alongside Sergio Aguero, rarely seeing the ball and being crowded out by Bosnia’s defence. Of his 27 passes, only 70 per cent were successful as he lost possession 15 times. Of his attempted forward passes, he completed just 12 per cent, the lowest of any Argentinian player on the pitch. He was ineffective and, save for his free kick that led to Sead Kolasinac’s third-minute own goal, offered little in the way of a threat.

In the second half, coach Alejandro Sabella switched from a 5-3-2 — which Messi is said to prefer — to a 4-3-3 when he introduced Gonzalo Higuain and Fernando Gago in place of Maxi Rodriguez and Hugo Campagnaro. This allowed his playmaker to drop deeper and with Higuain playing the role of target man, the pressure on Messi’s shoulders was relieved.

In the 64th minute, the Barcelona forward gave his critics a prime example of his World Cup woes, firing a free kick high over the crossbar from 20 yards. Yet before the cynicism had even finished being delivered, the ball was in the back of the net and Messi was wheeling away in delight, celebrating only his second goal at a World Cup and his first since Argentina’s memorable 6-0 mauling of Serbia in 2006.

Picking the ball up 10 yards inside the opposition half, he had danced forward, exchanged passes with Higuain, jinked past two more defenders — making them comically crash into each other — and fired a perfect, low drive in off the upright. It was trademark Messi and it was beautiful.

Clearly, one goal will not elevate him to loftier heights. Those who criticise his lack of goals will now demand more: more goals and more dominant performances. They will remind us that Maradona’s goal record for Argentina — 34 in 91, or a ratio of 0.37 — was not the reason he is remembered as one half of football’s greatest duo.

They will say for Messi to equal or surpass his compatriot, he must dribble the length of the pitch, he must single-handedly lead his country to glory and he must continue to impress until the day he retires.

Only then, once he has stopped playing and his records stand stationary, will they concede his qualities. Only then will we be allowed to say we watched one of the greatest players the game has ever seen without people disputing it. Only then will Messi be able to barge in and create the triumvirate.


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