Switching between the right flank and the center of the field, he barely touched the ball against a Mexico the team is determined to contain him.
On the rare occasions he did, he tried to do too much. With a group of El Tri defenders following his every move, there was always a sea of green shirts around him. He would beat one or two, only to be dispossessed before he could enter open space or play a quick one-two with a teammate.
With his side on the brink and struggling to break through, Leo Messi found his usual magic to propel Argentina to a 2-0 win over Mexico.
With nearly 90,000 fans waiting inside the Lusail Iconic Stadium watching his every move, the tension reached an almost excruciating level as the seconds ticked by. Could it really end like it has so many times before in his national team shirt for the greatest player who ever lived: in misery?
The difference this time was that there would be no chance of redemption. Messi, 35, announced before the tournament that this World Cup, his fifth, would be his last. This magnificent gold trophy is the only one he has ever won, the only flaw in an otherwise incomparable career.
This year was supposed to be different. This is the best Albiceleste side Messi has ever had around him. That supporting cast helped him win the Copa America last summer, his first title for his country. The end of the storybook was due to come at the final whistle of the World Cup final at this same stadium next month.
But one shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in Argentina’s opener in Qatar allowed the pressure and doubt to return. Argentina had to beat Mexico – or at least not lose – on Saturday to restore his league dreams and the hopes of football fans everywhere that Messi gets the dispatch he so richly deserves.
Let the little magician do it all by himself.
Just after the hour mark, Messi showed exactly why he is the GOAT – and why he is far from finished. Bursting into the void in front of El Tri’s backline, he found himself with the ball to his famous left foot.
Time stopped. Messi straightened his leg and stroked the ball along the turf just out of reach of the Mexican keeper Memo Ochoajust inside the far post.
The goal delighted tens of thousands of Argentina fans on the move behind the goal. It was a perfect shot from a perfect player, and it happened when he and they needed it most.
Surely even the Mexican fans in attendance – the loud, deafening crowd was about evenly split between green and sky blue – couldn’t blame him.
This is how Messi became revered across the football planet. He’s given football fans so much joy, for so long, that it’s almost impossible to root against him. It doesn’t matter if you are Brazilian or Madrid, everyone understands and can appreciate how special Messi is.
With all the tension released into the ether, after Messi’s moment of genius, Argentina took over. Enzo Fernandez put the game aside on an assist from Messi with three minutes of regulation time remaining.
The work is not finished, of course. It is just beginning. Argentina have just three points from their first two games and still have to face by Robert Lewandowski Poland – who beat the Saudis 2-0 hours earlier – in the Group C final on Wednesday. But The Albiceleste did what they needed for Saturday. Rather than crumble under the weight of huge expectations, they responded and reclaimed their status as title favorites.
Now they have momentum as well as all the neutrals behind them.
After staring at the unthinkable – elimination from the World Cup before even playing their third match in the first round – in the face for more than an hour, the dream remains alive.
Messi is on a mission. It’s not over, not by a long shot.
His exploits on Saturday proved that Argentina and the GOAT can still win this World Cup, even if he has to lead his team to the podium single-handedly.
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Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Prior to joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer at ESPN and Yahoo Sports and covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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