Alejandro Sabella attempted to do the usual of putting it down to a team effort, but eventually had to abandon the pretence and admit it was a consequence of possessing a wholly unusual and unique talent.
“All players who have played have contributed to the victory,” the Argentina manager initially said of his side’s late 1-0 win over Iran. “but of course we have a genius in [Leo] Messi. We’re fortunate he’s Argentinian.”
There was nothing fortunate about his winning goal. It was a distillation of Messi’s formidable ability, and a display of what he is capable of doing in this World Cup.
As the clock ticked well into stoppage time, and Argentina badly required a goal against a robust Iranian side who had by now filled their entire box with very nearly all 11 players, Leo Messi picked up the ball and picked his spot.
“That last strike by Lionel, not even two goalkeepers could have stopped that,” Sabella said.
— marcos lopez (@marcosperiodico) June 21, 2014
It was the perfect goal, and made for the perfect World Cup moment. This was one of those defining statements, of the type the history of the competition has been built on. The tournament’s brightest star delivered when it mattered most. He celebrated wildly, the entire Belo Horizonte stadium shook. Argentina’s already boisterous fans were now bouncing.
Their path into the second round is now secure, but the curiosity is that the team themselves are at something of a crossroads, with the juncture coming somewhere between their 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 formations.
For all that a decisive player like Messi leaves so little margin for error - as the very figures on the clock prove - the fact it came down to a late, late strike leaves a lot of wide-open questions. For a start, there was the finish. How much does one moment like that eradicate what went before?
Does it show that Messi is capable of producing magic no matter how he’s playing, or does it prove he should be offering even more? How do you square some of his downright lazy earlier efforts with a lightning bolt like that? Will that thunder crack wake Argentina up? Is the momentum from it something they can build on, or does it just cover weak foundations?
From all that, only one thing is certain beyond Messi’s undeniable brilliance: the debate about formations is far from finished. This game showed why Sabella will sometimes feel the need to bolster a highly suspect defence with a 5-3-2. Iran routinely outpaced them on the break, and caused real occasions of chaos and blind panic. The concern for Sabella is what a top-class attack could do to that back line, and he admitted it was on his mind.
“I’m worried about this,” the manager said. “Of course we want to win so we'll obviously try and strike a balance. It is not easy but we will try.”
For a time, “try” was all Argentina could do. The best attack in the competition was suffering real toil against what may well be the best defensive unit in Brazil. The organisation of Carlos Quieroz certainly stands out in a World Cup that has been so open.
It should not be forgotten that Argentina did open Iran up with some fine moves. Angel Di Maria was the source of some sensational runs and there were occasionally delightful interchanges on the edge of the box. Similarly, Gonzalo Higuain or Ezequiel Garay could have scored so much earlier, which may well have made for a completely different game and performance, particularly if Iran were forced out.
It all illustrates that Argentina can improve by a considerable distance, that they have more to offer. The feeling persists that we have still only seen glimpses of how good they can be, even if Sabella has to fix a number of issues to ensure they can reach that level.
Yet that is also the positive side of playing relatively poorly now. Argentina can try and fix those problems at a time when there is not so much pressure, before the real business begins.
In that respect, it is highly possible their campaign mirrors Messi’s match: initially not on top form, somewhat unconvincing until a gradual pick-up before finishing in the most glorious manner you can.
Miguel Delaney is based in Rio and covering Argentina for us throughout the World Cup - on Twitter @MiguelDelaney
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