In the autumn of his career, Messi has found a way to define Argentina

Lionel Messi speeds past three Australians.Image AFP

It was an explosion of genius: the tight lead-in, the movement, the assumption with which he mastered the ball and the concealed shot, so accurate and quick through the legs of an Australian defender. Goal.

Despite all the trophies he won, beautiful goals he made and graceful dribbles along the pitches in Europe and far beyond, Lionel Messi did something on Saturday night that he had never done before. He scored in the knockout phase at a World Cup.

With his goal, the 35-year-old star player guided Argentina past Australia (2-1) in the eighth finals, leading to a place in the quarter finals against the Netherlands on Friday evening at 8 p.m. “A tough opponent, who has excellent players,” Messi looked ahead to the Argentinian TyC Sports. “I think both countries are evenly matched.”

If the Netherlands wants to reach the semi-finals at the expense of Argentina, national coach Louis van Gaal knows what to do: neutralize Messi. In the tough South American whole, which is based on solidity, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner is the unpredictable creative brain. The man around whom everything revolves.

Messi’s story

The goal against Australia is also the story of Messi at this World Cup, in his fifth and presumably final attempt to take home the World Cup. After the victory against Australia, Argentina can still dream of the first world title since 1986, which will forever be linked to his glorious compatriot Maradona.

In the final phase of his career, Messi has found a way to still be decisive for Argentina. He chooses his moments where he rises above the other players, when he feels the opportunity is there. Then it is as if time is turned back for a moment and Messi shows his surplus of quality as in his best Barcelona years.

After just over thirty minutes, there was a flash from the past, after Messi had mainly moved around the field on foot in the half hour before. He knows: opponents are watching him with a magnifying glass. So he lurks, waits and strikes when the attunement of his guards is not right and he enjoys a little space.

Messi may be absent in parts of the match or conspicuously withdraw from the game, opponents are unable to stop him. With three goals, he is not only Argentina’s top scorer. He is also the player with the most shots on target in the team of national coach Lionel Scaloni (10). He also created the most chances (13) and gave one assist, with which he shared the most goals prepared.

Free roll

The figures are irrefutable proof that in Argentina everything is aligned offensively with Messi, who is positionally difficult to capture in a system this World Cup. In his free role, he looks for places where he can get hold of the ball, while his teammates do their ostentatious efforts to pass it on.

Like Mexico and Poland, Australia also made the spaces on the pitch so small that there were always two or three opponents surrounding Messi when he touched the ball. Only when Argentina came to 2-0 after an hour via striker Julian Alvaraz and Australia had to attack, did Messi increasingly think of the younger version of himself.

In his thousandth game in his career, he played football after the break with the open-mindedness as if it were his first. ‘Messi, Messi, Messi’, rolled from the stands after a solo from the halfway line. The goal that gave his side the lead before the break was his 789th career goal and his ninth at a World Cup, one more than Maradona.

Staggering numbers

These are staggering numbers to match his achievements over the past two decades. He has already won so much, including eleven national titles, four times the Champions League and the Copa América. But emotionally there is much more to be won now that the entire nation is looking over his shoulder at his presumably last trick in the blue and white shirt: the world title with Argentina.

The dream is still very much alive, partly because opponents have not yet found an answer to Messi’s game. A deflected shot from substitute former Spartan Craig Goodwin against Australia also failed to change that.

The question is whether Van Gaal will be able to take the sting out of the Argentinian game. “They have a fantastic coach,” said Messi about the Dutch national team.

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