Messi threatening Maradona’s benchmarks

The Rio Report

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As Leo Messi walked off the Porto Alegre pitch following another masterclass, he was grabbed by someone he had just humiliated. Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, however, was not angry. He was beaming, playfully admonishing Messi for the way the playmaker had put two wondrous goals past him.

[MATCH REPORT: ARGENTINA 3-2 NIGERIA]

Enyeama was also clearly referencing the last time the two met. Messi had not just made the goalkeeper look foolish here. He had made amends for 2010, when the Nigerian number one repeatedly performed heroics to prevent the Argentine from scoring. Messi would end up going the entire South African World Cup without a goal.

The debate that drought produced now seems so much further back than four years ago, as well as so irrelevant.

Messi did not even need to beat Enyeama to banish such doubts, but doing so did emphasise the extent of the difference. The 27-year-old’s two sublime goals put him up to four for this World Cup as a whole, making him the current top scorer along with Neymar. That duel with the Brazilian would appear symbolic enough in itself, except he faces personal challenges of even greater significance. Messi is now within one goal of the five that Diego Maradona struck in 1986.

That benchmark also raises another challenge, another doubt to banish. The 1986 tournament marks the last time that Argentina beat a European team in normal time of a World Cup knock-out match. In fact, since 1994, they have not defeated anyone other than Mexico in such a tie.

USA 94 brought defeat to Romania, France 1998 that famous last-minute loss to the Dutch, but only after just about beating 10-man England on penalties. The English got revenge by eliminating Argentina in the group stages of 2002 and, since then, they seen the same pattern: a last-16 win over Mexico before losing to Germany.

Now, Argentina are hoping to break a pattern, as they prepare to face Switzerland in the last 16.

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In truth, the trend is likely no more than one of those odd football quirks rather than anything with concrete value, but it does reflect the extent of the country’s failure at international level since Maradona’s time. Argentina have not been semi-finalists since 1990. That renders them effective also-rans, at least in relation to their quality.

Now, the worst part is that the Swiss do display the kind of qualities that should concern Argentina, even if Messi himself argued there was a pick-up in performance.

Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side possess a free-wheeling attacking brio that Alejandro Sabella’s defence are especially susceptible to. As such, Xherdan Shaqiri is well capable of replicating the kind of glorious chaos that Ahmed Musa caused for Nigeria.

It is not the only concern that Sabella has. There is also the injury to Sergio Aguero, the poor form of Gonzalo Higuain and the apparent disrespect shown to the manager by Ezequiel Lavezzi.

Given that there are still doubts over Fernando Gago, and neither of their much-discussed formations are yet fully functioning, you could say Argentina have profound problems right through the team.

All of that should be the dominant story, the decisive factors.

And yet, it’s impossible to not return to the main issue, the main man: Messi.

[WITH DI MARIA FEEDING MESSI, FEW CAN STOP ARGENTINA]

What’s more, far from the 3-2 win over Nigeria casting more light on their deeper problems, it only re-asserted his importance. It made the Messi narrative all the more relevant. He is getting better.

It was not just that he scored the goals to propel Argentina again. It was that the very nature of those goals seemed to indicate just how much he’s growing into this tournament; just how comfortable and confident he’s becoming.

For one, unlike the first two games, it didn’t take an entire half and a whole lot of doing nothing to finally derive that response. Messi scored within three minutes, with the casual way he powered the ball into the roof of the net further making his ease apparent.

A lesser player would have blazed the ball over the bar given its trajectory. Messi sent it on a path to the roof of the net that couldn’t have been purer.

Then there was the perfection of the second just before half-time. Having first found his range with an earlier free-kick, Messi then found the net with an exquisite one.

It was yet another statement. Rooted to his line, Enyeama simply couldn’t react - except to seek out Messi and congratulate him.

Miguel Delaney is in Brazil and covering the World Cup for Eurosport - follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney

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