Burden now as big as Messi’s gifts
Lionel Messi dropped off from Mexico's midfield marker and just stood there for an instance, standing quite a few metres from the top of the box, as he usually does. Only a nuanced eye would know that he is waiting for Julian Alvarez to push the centre-backs just a little bit more before he almost willed Angel Di Maria pass onto his feet. This is the nearest distance to goal that his countrymen could find him with a pass and with Argentina's World Cup hanging on the line, Messi did the impossible.
A catapult of a strike that grazed the green below and evaded the goalkeeper in the blink of an eye. Raging against the dying light in more ways than one, Messi found the net. Still a gift that keeps on giving, however, the demands on the diminutive Argentine has reached surreal levels to become a burden on his talents.
Where is this burden coming from? Argentina have always been a clanky side throughout the past few World Cups. The growing expectations have only surfaced after their recent 36-game unbeaten run coming into this World Cup. A defeat to Saudi Arabia in the first game, however, saw old woes resurface -- a failure to execute and nerves where effort was needed. With expectation, the nerves were not too late to rush in at the World Cup.
If the Messi goal was remarkable for any match played anywhere, Argentina's rudderless performance in the match was just as shocking. It was akin to a clanky car with abject mechanical failures, or a run-of-the-mill rock band where the drummer was thrashing away, the bass distuned, and guitarist playing the wrong song.
The full-backs in Nahuel Molina and Gonzalo Montiel did very little in terms of showing awareness on the ball or injecting pace. Marcus Acuna, a sort of make-shift left-back against Mexico, was uncertain of whether he was to make runs behind or just make up the numbers.
In the crucial midfield, Rodrigo De Paul, Guido Rodriguez and Alexis Mac Allister did not seem to possess the creative influx to use Messi's unique gifts, while Di Maria operated the flanks from both ends in a free role that paid little dividends, in terms of freeing Messi.
Up top, Lautaro Martinez was not getting onto the game and his first touch on occasions was just as bad as the midfield resulting in turnovers. Even the pressure release ball had to be picked up by Messi with back to goal and defenders hounding him.
At 35 years of age, Messi's strike against Mexico reminded of the goal he scored against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final. He is not the same player anymore but his job has gotten harder.
Forget being title contenders, Argentina midfield has looked more isolated than those of the USA or Saudi Arabia. If a shard of hope is left, it comes from the stability of the last two years of centre-backs Nicholas Otamendi and Christian Romero. The absence of Lo Celso may have been huge considering Argentina had some basis of positional play even in the Finalissima against Italy earlier in June.
On the bright side, Enzo Fernandez excited with his splendid strike and Alvarez up front also allows more room for optimism. All in all, however, hopes remain slim and burden enormous as, Messi said after Mexico match, "another World Cup starts for Argentina."