herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

Jaded messiah Messi unable to carry his beloved Argentina to the promised land

As the Argentinian players huddled round their manager preparing to take to the field for a gruelling final half-an-hour of extra-time against Germany, one man was conspicuous by his absence.

Lionel Messi, so often his side's saviour in Brazil, turned away from his team-mates and sauntered off, perhaps happier in his own thoughts than those of coach Alejandro Sabella.

Who could blame him? Argentina's progress to that point had relied largely on moments of Messi individualism.

The stunning strike at the Maracana, the 91st-minute curling winner against Iran, the brace against Nigeria, the sumptuous through-ball against Belgium and the numerous skips, jinks and dinks that we have long come to associate with the anointed successor to Diego Maradona.

Ultimately, however, it proved not enough.

Argentina's defeat to Germany was as much a defeat of individualism as it was a victory for teamwork, cohesion and spirit.

At the final whistle, Messi looked emotionally and physically drained, a pale shadow of the player who had opened his tournament account against Bosnia-Herzegovina at the same venue almost four weeks before.

That he was awarded FIFA's Golden Ball for the best player was as bizarre as it was irrelevant. This was a night for collective - not individual - brilliance.

Argentina had entered the competition with the most talented array of attacking options the competition had to offer.

In Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi, the Blue and Whites had so much fire-power at their disposal they were afforded the luxury of leaving Carlos Tevez at home.

But none of Messi's accomplices were able to shoulder the burden of creativity as all four battled with form, fitness, or both, from start to finish.

Argentina's bluntness in attack allowed opposition defences to swarm around Messi with greater confidence and seemed to make the number 10 more desperate in his eagerness to do it alone.

The team that were expected to light up the World Cup with their incision and speed, scored a miserable two goals in four knock-out matches, three of which included half-an-hour of extra-time.

In fact, if anything, it was Argentina's defensive players who were the team's greatest strength.

Javier Mascherano grew stronger as the tournament went on and his semi-final display against Holland - including a last-ditch tackle on Arjen Robben - was arguably as good a performance as any in the tournament.

Left-back Marcus Rojo and goalkeeper Sergio Romero also left Brazil with their reputations enhanced.

SPIRITS

A third group win against Nigeria, and two more goals for Messi, sent the South Americans through to the last 16 in positive spirits particularly given their talisman had notched four goals in three matches.

But Messi's incision was disguising a collective lack of fluidity which was again evident as his side edged past Switzerland 1-0 after extra-time in the last 16.

A quarter-final contest against Belgium, who were also struggling to live up to expectations, saw Higuain justify his selection with a snap-shot in the eighth-minute to seal another 1-0 victory.

Then came the Dutch in the semi-final, but the two attacking heavyweights failed to deliver a knock-out blow and a tedious goalless draw had to be settled on penalties.

Holland were unable to reproduce their penalty heroics of the previous round when they had beaten Costa Rica, as Romero denied Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder from the spot to put Argentina through.

The final was hailed as Messi's moment to prove himself as the greatest to ever, but instead 22-year-old Mario Gotze etched his name into the history books with a brilliant volley in extra-time to ensure Germany lifted the Cup.

Messi's date with history may be yet to come - he will be 31 in Russia in four years time - but if Argentina take one thing away from Brazil, it is that he will not be able to do it alone.

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