Lionel Messi and Ever Banega showed what this Argentina team could be against Nigeria before Marcos Rojo’s crazy winner bore their reality.
From the rabble and rubble of Argentina’s Nizhny nightmare, the vague structure of a football team Lionel Messi needed emerging.
Everyone from Diego Maradona – inimitably in attendance in St Petersburg for this World Cup-salvaging 2-1 win over Nigeria – to Messi’s mother had their say on the ignominy of the 3-0 reverse against Croatia.
There was the talk of bust-ups and mutiny in the squad, with the Argentinian Football Association forced to deny reports the players wanted embattled head coach Jorge Sampaoli replaced by 1986 World Cup winner and current general manager Jorge Burruchaga.
Sampaoli responded with five changes and a third formation in as many games – a selection that hinted at player power or darts being thrown at a team-sheet in the dressing room as opposed to punches.
Lining up in the 4-3-3 shape in which he has spent the vast majority of his career, Messi looked sharp early on. The normality brought a calmness and a fizz absent from his work so far at this tournament.
He was roared on by the deafening hordes of his compatriots inside Krestovsky Stadium, who had made the long journey from a country where the national sense of self and worth is romantically and hopelessly bound up with the fortunes of La Albiceleste.
The Buenos Aires of River Plate, Boca Juniors, and the other Grandes might be the beating heart, the burning soul and weeping eyes of Argentinian football, but the goal everyone came to see was artfully crafted and joyously brought to life by Rosario.
Messi and Ever Banega are, of course, long departed from their home city, but the childhood friends instantly reconnected on the St Petersburg turf, with the Sevilla playmaker’s silken touch and precision passing allowing Messi to lurk in the pockets of space where he does delightful damage.
Banega already had the midfield – a concept present only in name as Argentina labored cluelessly against Croatia – in the palm of his hand by the time he sent Messi scampering clear in the 14th minute. There was still much to do but the control was effortlessly assured and the shot clinically sent across Francis Uzoho to spark bedlam.
Uzoho got a faint touch on a wonderful Messi free-kick that cannoned back off the post – Banega having brilliantly released Angel Di Maria, who then had a shot blocked as Messi orchestrated the type of one-touch passing move that might have made him feel, briefly he was back in Catalonia.
But this Argentina team is no well-oiled machine and it started to clank and crash shortly after the half hour. The window had closed. You do not go from three head coaches in a barely-salvaged qualifying campaign and relentless selection changes to a seamless 90 minutes, however much Banega made that fleetingly seem possible.
Javier Mascherano misplacing routine passes and playing from memory was a sad enough sight in the first half and his sorry grapple on Leon Balogun brought a penalty. Victor Moses converted and brought back the madness.
Argentina’s runs and passes instantly lacked any sort of order, Banega swapped creativity for wild slide tackles, their shape dissolved and Sampaoli’s baffling substitutions made the whole thing worse.
Messi channeled his inner Kipling by keeping his head when all around him were losing theirs, but it was no good. This was a team in a tumble dryer.
Had Argentina gone home, the AFA need only have shown Sampaoli a video of his chosen subs combining in the 73rd minute. Cristian Pavon duffed a corner at the first man, the ball was worked out to the other flank where Maximiliano Meza stubbed it out for a goal kick. A double for the thoughts of Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala on the bench.
Eventually, Aguero came on, Odion Ighalo should have won it twice for Nigeria before Marcos Rojo – the other side of a VAR penalty reprieve for handball – promptly did.
All those dazzling attackers and the center-back charged forward to smash in a volley from fellow defender Gabriel Mercado’s cross that will forever define him.
This was more of the utter nonsense Argentina have made their hallmark in Russia. Finally, it worked in their favor as Maradona wailed with joy and made crude gestures at fans. Croatia led Iceland 2-1. The dream lived.
If Messi and Banega can find enough lucidity against an underwhelming France it may have more legs yet. A genius and his similarly diminutive accomplice have an unwieldy mob to haul forward with them.