Pitchside

Sullen, nervous, brilliant – Messi showed many sides in opening World Cup match

Pitchside

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Having banished one of the most conspicuous droughts in the modern game, Leo Messi then banished one growing doubt.

The playmaker had just scored what was only his second ever World Cup goal, but was asked about Argentina’s conspicuous formation switch that seemed to facilitate it. At half-time in the nervy 2-1 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, manager Alex Sabella had changed from a 5-3-2 to their usual 4-3-3, effectively confirming the confusion that the initial alteration had caused.

Argentina’s pre-game training with new formation had caused some bemusement, and one theory was that a demanding Messi had specifically asked for that system so he could play closer to Sergio Aguero.

[MESSI FELT 'ANXIETY AND NERVES' BEFORE WONDER GOAL]

The playmaker’s response completely scotched that, and his words were not exactly those of a man who had been happy in the initial system.

“In the first half we gave up possession to Bosnia and so I was too deep,” Messi said. “I was alone and Kun [Aguero] was alone. It was very difficult. We like [the 4-3-3] better because when you go forward you have more possibilities of passing the ball and scoring. We strikers and forwards are favoured by this formation.”

Sabella was evasive on the subject, but he is likely to favour a 4-3-3 now too. This game appeared to leave him with no choice, even if a superior attacking outfit than an admirably resilient Bosnia and Herzegovina may require a reversion.

As the initial energy that forced Sead Kolasinac’s early own goal badly waned, Argentina were far from convincing, but there was still enough there for them to be content. Most of all, there was the manner that Messi grew into the game, his role, and potentially the entire tournament.

By the time he spoke, he was surprisingly frank, but still in those quiet tones that betray an apparent discomfort with talking to the media. It was certainly a stark contrast to his goal celebration, which amounted to a primal scream.

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World Cup - Messi felt 'anxiety and nerves' before wonder goal

Both, however, revealed his palpable relief in different ways. Messi admitted as much afterwards, and stated that he had been feeling the pressure. It was remarkable to hear him talk in this way.

[MARACANA THE PERFECT SETTING AS MESSI SHEDS THE MONKEY FROM HIS BACK]

I guess we learned he is human after all, as a poor first-half display more than emphasised. At that point, the most conspicuous images were of Messi running down blind alleys with the ball, or simply refusing to run at all when he didn’t. It initially looked like pure sullen laziness, but was later indicated to be something else: as if he was genuinely suffering from the weight of it all.

“It’s normal to have doubts,” he said. “It’s the first match, we were nervous, anxious. The most important thing was winning and we did that.”

They did it, of course, thanks to Messi’s key 65th-minute strike. It ensured that Vedad Ibisevic’s 84th-minute response was no more than a consolation for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also meant the Barca star finally converted in the World Cup for the first time in eight years.

Yet, if it was an untypical setting, it was a typical Messi strike: delicate footwork to put him into space, a driven finish to put the ball in the net.

“The goal was a big relief for all of us,” he acknowledged, before going on to describe it as a “special” moment. It’s difficult to disagree, particularly when you consider the dimensions and context.

The match had already produced one of the most distinctive and crackling atmospheres of the World Cup so far, as the country of Argentina effectively took over the home of their most historic rivals.

The Maracana was blue and white. That was all they had to actually celebrate for some time, however, as the team’s energy no longer matched that in the stands.

That, at least, was until Messi stepped up. He did so by repeatedly stepping around so many Bosnian and Herzegovinian defenders, until he found that moment’s space. It was as if he had been released. Or, as Sabella put it, "empowered".

By then, it was no longer just about Argentina taking over the Maracana, but Messi himself. It had developed an even greater sense of occasion. The world’s finest player was finally showing the sport’s most historic competition his true self.

[WHY WE ALL LOVE LEO MESSI]

Here, he was not making demands about formations, but devastating those of other teams.

If it continues, Argentina are capable of overcoming any other doubts about the team, and ending a 28-year drought of their own. The Maracana may well see such scenes again before this tournament is over.

Miguel Delaney (on Twitter: @MiguelDelaney)

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Brazil 360: Maracana the perfect setting as Messi sheds the monkey from his back

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