The speed of thought that Lionel Messi showed while taking his goal was incredible, but the hard-fought victory over Mexico also gave us a glimpse of Argentine football’s future, in the shape of the brilliant Enzo Fernandez.
Much of the talk before this tournament was of Argentina’s 36-match unbeaten run, which spanned over three years. But by the end of their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia, it was another number that had their fans breaking out in cold sweats. Since losing the 2014 World Cup final to Germany, Argentina had won just one of their five World Cup matches, a sequence that included a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Croatia and a 4-3 loss to France, the eventual champions, in the round of 16. It wasn’t being mischievous to ask whether another team built around the matchless talent of Lionel Messi could cope with the pressure of being on the biggest stage.
When fighting to stay alive in a tournament, Mexico are one of the last teams you’d want to play. After being banned for the 1990 edition, El Tri have reached the last 16 in each of the next seven World Cups, accumulating some notable scalps along the way. None of those victories was more eye-catching than the one over Germany, World Cup holders, in 2018.
Mexico has one of the strongest leagues in the Americas, and their players are known for their tenacity. They will scrap for every inch, and notably raise their game when up against illustrious South American opponents. On Saturday night, with Argentina clearly nervous, it was they that had the better opportunities in the first half.
But what this Mexican team lacks is a cutting edge. There is no penalty-box poacher like Javier ‘Chicarito’ Hernandez, or an attacking presence to compare with The Last Emperor, Cuauhtémoc Blanco. Raul Gimenez had that quality in his prime, but he hasn’t been remotely the same player since suffering that horrendous skull fracture a couple of years ago.
As for Argentina, how can you ever count out a team that has Messi in its ranks? It was the great Muhammad Ali that once said: “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” The Saudi Arabia loss was that pebble, but throughout the qualifying campaign, it was apparent that Messi, now 35, isn’t about to lose sight of the mountaintop and the World Cup title he craves above all else.
Against Mexico, chances were at a premium. A trademark run early in the second half ended with him being scythed down. But the resulting free kick was floated harmlessly over the bar. As the minutes ticked down, you could sense the tension in the stands and even among the players.
But it’s at moments like those that sporting genius makes itself felt. When Angel Di Maria passed the ball to him from the right wing, Messi was in a central position and about 22 yards from goal. Those Mexicans moving to close him down could have been forgiven for expecting that he would shift the ball to a teammate on the left flank and move further forward.
Instead, he took one touch and with the ball still bobbling, sent a daisy-cutter past Guillermo Ochoa and into the corner of the net. If the Mexicans and the millions watching were stunned, who could blame them? The speed of thought and execution were incredible. Two Mexicans had sensed the danger and were rushing to close him down, but the ball had left his boot long before they could get close.
This win wasn’t only about Messi though. Lionel Scaloni, the coach, deserves enormous credit for recognising that the starting XI against Saudi Arabia hadn’t clicked. The five changes made for this match said as much. Lisandro Martinez, the centre-back that Manchester United signed from Ajax in the summer, may be small in stature, but he’s a warrior with great positional sense and speed. And the introduction of Enzo Fernandez with more than half an hour remaining gave the team much-needed attacking momentum.
Fernandez, just 21, is a versatile, deep-lying playmaker who can also move up the pitch and influence play. The manner in which he took his goal – Messi, who else, provided the assist – showed just why he’s so highly rated, and why Benfica of Lisbon will struggle to hold on to him for very long.
Given the intensity of the rivalry between the two countries, it’s unusual for an Argentine to be named after a Uruguayan. But during his spells with River Plate of Buenos Aires in the 1980s and 1990s, Enzo Francescoli was such an iconic figure that Raúl Fernandez decided to name his son after the Uruguayan. The modern-day Enzo is a very different player from his father’s hero, but there is every sign that he, along with Julian Alvarez of Manchester City, is the next great Argentine talent.
Despite that amazing unbeaten run, this is far from being a perfect team. Saudi Arabia showed that. But as the likes of Fernandez grow in stature and the team enjoys such frenetic support from the stands, Messi will feel that his dream is very much alive. Poland and the imposing Robert Lewandowski await, with victory a necessity to avoid Kylian Mbappe and France in the next round. But with the pebble now removed from the shoe, beware of Argentina. Messi’s genius will always garner the most headlines, but this is no one-man show.