Messi has to believe in wisdom of his directing hand to reawaken Argentina

ROBERT MADOI 

What you need to know:

While Messi was not expected to walk on water, it's difficult to imagine that players from Saudi Arabia were blind to the hazards that awaited them. The work ethic of the Saudis was only expected to afford them the opportunity of undertaking an exercise in damage limitation. Even then, any such action carried tremendous risk. 
 

If the past five editions of the Fifa World Cup have taught us anything, it is not to read too much into the performance of a team in its opening fixture.

Save for Germany’s 4-0 statement win over Portugal on the back of Thomas Müller’s treble, the eventual winners of the global title have turned in a number of ropey performances.

France did not quite do enough to set the pulse of many football fans racing during their come-from-behind 2-1 win over Australia in 2018. Les Bleus in fact needed a late own goal to turn things around. Before that, Spain’s death knell was sounded after suffering a 1-0 loss at the hands of Switzerland in 2010.

Italy might have won their 2006 World Cup opener, but there was almost complete unanimity that the final result—a laboured 2-0 win over debutants Ghana—flattered Gli Azzurri.

In 2002, Brazil—who are expertly engineered to deliver multiple moments of brilliance on football’s grandest stage—stuttered to a 2-1 win over Turkey in their opening fixture.

The Samba Boys found themselves on the back foot, playing with a genuinely desperate edge after Hassan Şaş fired the Turks into a shock lead. It took a Rivaldo penalty with three minutes of normal play left for Brazil to put the game to bed.

So, with hindsight, one can come to the conclusion that the way an opening fixture pans out is a matter of considerably less importance. Time and again, we’ve seen teams fail to live up to the barnstorming opening performances they mustered.

There is always a danger of either peaking too early or resting on one’s laurels after a team steamrollers an opponent as England did in her opening fixtures at Qatar 2022.

Gareth Southgate’s side wore the air of natural command and raged in intensity before hitting Iran for six.

Argentina? Not much so. We will learn today if Leo Messi will stop La Albiceleste from making it two in two. That’s two losses on the bounce in case you’re wondering.

Messi was not your average rabbit caught in the headlights during Argentina’s chastening 2-1 defeat against Saudi Arabia. But he also wasn’t the colossus we have come to know him to be.

While Messi was not expected to walk on water, it's difficult to imagine that players from Saudi Arabia were blind to the hazards that awaited them.

The work ethic of the Saudis was only expected to afford them the opportunity of undertaking an exercise in damage limitation. Even then, any such action carried tremendous risk. 

Yet, bar dispatching a first half penalty, Messi was rarely memorable. This was his eighth World Cup goal in 21 appearances.

All scored at the group stage. When his side went 2-1 down, Messi failed to showcase the requisite skills to stop his team from being caught in the grip of negative tactics.

Aged 35, Messi is not expected to put up the scoring clinics that came to define his youth at club level. The belief in the wisdom of his directing hand is, however, supposed to be even more vital now. 


In the 2006 World Cup, Zinedine Zidane and his fellow veterans were dismissed as the Rolling Stones on one final tour. This followed a lethargic performance that saw Les Bleus fail to win their opening two fixtures against Switzerland and South Korea.

There was no shortage of critics who were venting fiercely about Zizou's supposed intractable waning powers. 

The Frenchman's swansong World Cup was destined to end in shame. Zizou, for whom this outcome was the sum of all fears, reset his trajectory by playing the role of facilitator.

Along the way, the goals came—three of them at the knockout stage. The mother of all headbutts denied him a grandstand finish.

The moral of the story, for Messi at least, is that a reinvention has to materialise if he and the likes of Ángel Di María are not to be likened to the Rolling Stones on a final tour.

Failing to take responsibility will raise wails and curses to the level of incriminating a player some have mentioned in the same breath as Diego Maradona.

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