Lionel Messi scored the opening goal for Argentina in their pivotal match against Nigeria on Tuesday, and it was like the world exhaled in unison. After a nightmarish start to their World Cup, Argentina were in a position to advance out of the group stage … and it was their hero, oddly quiet up to this point, who had broken the deadlock.
Once Argentina fans took a moment to feel relief at the goal, though, they undoubtedly started screaming. Because holy hell WHAT A GOAL.
The goal was pivotal too, as it started off Argentina toward an eventual, dramatic 2-1 win and a place in the knockout round.
- First, the run from Messi. I’ve watched Messi play so many times over the last decade or so, and one of the more underrated and incredible things about him as a player is the moment he sees a run and decides to go for it. He commits totally. He accelerates like a supercar, the time between initial thought to full speed takes place in the span of maybe half a second. At first, he drifts inside, just to lull the Nigeria defender into thinking he’s checking to the ball … then he and Banega locked eyes, and he took off running the other way. He wasn’t close to offside, and it didn’t matter. He was going, he would get past his defender, and then it was on Banega to put the ball where it needed to be.
- So, of course we have to talk about the pass from Banega. There was a lot missing from Argentina in their previous match, a disappointing loss to Croatia, but a glaring weakness was Argentina’s inability to pass the ball out of the midfield. With so many runners and high-energy guys in, they pressed, but they couldn’t make the passes they needed to. Banega in, and all of a sudden they have a player who can hit a 40-yard ball to Messi’s left thigh.
- The two touches Messi took to control this ball might be the single most incredible thing I’ve seen this World Cup. I’m including James’ pass. I’m including Quaresma’s trivela. I’m including it all. Some of those took daring, and vision. Messi’s two touches there are the product of a man with a generational touch. I’m struggling to wrap my mind around those two touches. Messi is running full sprint with a defender on his back hip, and he’s got a ball kicked at him that’s flying in from a distance of 40 yards, and — again, while running at full speed — he nestles the ball down with his trailing leg, takes another delicate touch in stride, and sets himself up to shoot. That’s not hard … that’s impossible.
Think about how hard it is to do anything else when you’re sprinting. You’re really just focused on one thing: going as fast as you can. Now think about doing that, but mid-stride, receiving a ball fired in at you from 40 yards and having the grace and patience to calmly ease the ball down with your upper leg, then, while still taking that same step, take a second, even more delicate touch to your other foot. You’re still sprinting this whole time, faster than another extremely fast athlete, who doesn’t have the ball and doesn’t have to do anything delicate. You can’t imagine doing this, because there are only a few people who have ever lived who could do it. That’s what separates Messi.
- The finish. It seems a little rote, especially after those two touches … a cymbal crash at the end of a symphony. But Messi still had to take the ball onto his weaker right foot and fire it in at not a great angle. He did it, because he had to do it. We needed that goal. He needed that goal. Argentina needed that goal. It was the moment we were waiting for.