Messi ends 8-year goal drought
RIO DE JANEIRO
ON THE eve of the Argentina-Bosnia game, a Brazilian newspaper came up with a cruel statistic.
In one World Cup game, Neymar had scored more World Cup goals than Lionel Messi had managed in his entire career.
The Brazilian was leading by two to one.
The little wizard has now levelled the score, and did it in style in his first ever game, which Argentina won 2-1, in Rio's iconic Maracana stadium.
It was typical Messi. A darting run from midfield followed by a slick one-two with a teammate, a sidestep around his marker and a fierce left-footed drive that ricocheted in off the post.
Not so typical was the celebration that followed. The Barcelona forward charged towards a section of Argentinian fans at the Maracana stadium with unusual vigour, wearing a facial expression that betrayed relief as much as jubilation.
The strike all but killed off Bosnia and Herzegovina's brave challenge. But in the context of Messi's career, this was a cathartic moment.
It has been eight years since he last scored a World Cup goal. Then, he was only a bit-part player in Jose Pekerman's team as he came off the bench to net on his World Cup debut against Serbia and Montenegro in Gelsenkirchen.
Since then Messi has won four Ballon D'Or awards and countless trophies with a Barcelona team described by many as the greatest ever.
But for all the silverware accumulated at club level, Messi's trophy cabinet has been conspicuously bereft of international accolades. He has been widely chastised for his inability to replicate his own superhuman feats at Barcelona for his country.
Critics claim he cannot be rated among the game's greats without a World Cup winner's medal. The nadir of his international career came at the last World Cup in South Africa, when Diego Maradona's side was bundled out by Germany in the quarter-finals.
Messi, though workmanlike throughout the tournament, failed to score. He was often forced deep, practically adopting a midfield role, due to Maradona's insistence on playing him alongside Carlos Tevez.
It seems Alejandro Sabella has taken note. Surprisingly, the Argentina manager decided to leave Gonzalo Higuain on the bench on Sunday.
The move was simply to accommodate Messi. It was a clear indication that the Barcelona No. 10 would be deployed in the false nine role used to such devastating effect for the Blaugrana.
Initially the move appeared to backfire on Sunday as Messi was starved of opportunities by Bosnia and Herzegovina's airtight central defensive pairing of Emir Spahic and Ermin Bicakcic.
But Sabella's introduction of Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuain at half-time gave Argentina more fluent delivery into the final third, providing the key needed to unlock Messi's magic.
When the moment came, the emotion etched on Messi's face was almost palpable. It spoke of a man on a mission to return to the Maracana on July 13 and confirm his place - unequivocally - in the pantheon of football's greats.