The pressure is on Lionel Messi to make this his World Cup, and he could not have started in better fashion than conjuring the marvellous strike that sealed Argentina’s 2-1 win against Bosnia-Hercegovina.
The game at the mythical Maracana in Rio de Janeiro was 65 minutes old when Messi collected possession just inside the Bosnian half of the field and accelerated towards goal.
Messi exchanged passes with Gonzalo Higuain before cutting inside and firing a low shot into the net off a post from the edge of the area to put Argentina 2-0 up, while his marker Muhamed Besic, trailing in his wake, ended up on the floor.
With substitute Vedad Ibisevic later pulling one back for the World Cup debutants, Messi’s effort turned out to be decisive.
It was a goal worthy of winning any game, and they don’t come much better than a World Cup match at the Maracana, especially for Argentina and their colourful, noisy support.
And despite that, Messi typically played down his contribution after the game.
“The second goal was special for me because of the occasion, but the result was the most important,” he said after collecting his man of the match award.
“We have things we need to improve but it was a good first game for us to start the World Cup.”
Set to turn 27 later this month, Messi should only now be at the peak of a career that has already delivered so much, including a record goal haul for Barcelona, three Champions Leagues and four Ballons d’Or.
But to cement his legacy as an all-time great, he surely has to match his great compatriot Diego Maradona and lead Argentina to World Cup glory.
Major international tournaments define the greatest players of each generation, and that is something Messi — a year older now than Maradona was in his 1986 World Cup campaign — can only be too aware of.
He took to the field at the Maracana sporting the captain’s armband and his evening got off to the perfect start. The game was only three minutes old when his free-kick from wide on the left was helped on by Marcos Rojo and turned into the net by hapless Bosnian defender Sead Kolasinac.
However, rather than set the tone for the rest of the evening, Alejandro Sabella’s side appeared unsure what to do next and his star-studded attack — Sergio Aguero partnered Messi — offered very little for the remainder of the opening half.
Messi produced one slaloming run into the penalty box shortly before the break, but otherwise he was all too often reduced to walking pace as neither Angel Di Maria nor Maxi Rodriguez in midfield provided him with a sufficient supply line.
Sabella wanted more and he changed things around at half-time, replacing one of his three centre-backs in Hugo Campagnaro with a third forward in Higuain and introducing Fernando Gago into the midfield in place of Maxi.
In reverting to their standard 4-3-3 formation, Argentina became a much greater threat, and Messi set up Aguero for one chance, only for the Manchester City striker to fire over.
Messi had been watched closely by Besic all evening but his moment came with the midway point in the second half approaching, when he finally got his second World Cup goal, almost exactly eight years after coming off the bench to net in a 6-0 defeat of Serbia and Montenegro in Germany. It was the type of goal he has scored so many times before with Barcelona, but doing it on this stage made it that little bit more special.
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