At one stage of Tuesday night’s match between Argentina and Switzerland, a journalist in the press box at Arena Corinthians suggested the South American behemoths consisted merely of Lionel Messi “and 10 other guys”.
It is a theory often used to explain why the little magician has struggled to stamp his authority on a major international tournament. Yet it is not in the slightest bit true.
Looking through the Argentina squad, 16 of the 23 players are employed in Europe’s top leagues. From Ezequiel Lavezzi at Paris Saint-Germain to Angel Di Maria at Real Madrid to Gonzalo Higuain at Napoli and Javier Mascherano at Barcelona. There is no lack of talent nor experience.
What is lacking, is a system that gets Messi on the ball without being suffocated by a swarm of opposition players.
At Barcelona, where he has scored 342 times in 357 appearances, his teammates are comfortable holding the ball, keeping possession, moving it around and switching positions. Messi is able to float around and, when he is marked, move position. Someone else can fill the space.
His teammates also demand attention. He plays as No 10, but is often found on either wing, deep or at the front of the attack.
Tuesday night, Argentina finished their 1-0 victory with 61 per cent possession, but they never impressed, rarely switched positions, never passed the ball slickly in midfield and, Di Maria aside, nobody was particularly threatening.
Switzerland could afford to focus on Messi, who stood for long periods in the centre circle, seemingly uninterested, but with his head constantly moving, scoping out the scene, memorising where every player on the pitch was going.
For 118 minutes, he had at least two players marking him. At one stage he hugged the touchline with two red shirts blocking him like bad guys in a dark alley, yet he still managed to wriggle his way through the gap and into a little space.
If Argentina is Messi and 10 others, it is not because the others are average; it is because Messi is on a different level entirely.
Having netted in his country’s first three games, he started against the Swiss knowing that to score for Argentina in a fourth consecutive match would see him equal another record, jointly held by Guillermo Stabile and Hernan Crespo.
He did not manage it, but his pass that led to Di Maria’s decisive goal in the closing stages of extra time tied him with Mario Kempes with four assists for Argentina at the World Cup. Only Juan Sebastian Veron, who amassed five, and Diego Maradona, with eight, have managed more.
The entire movement of Messi in the build-up to the crucial goal was reminiscent of El Diego, the legend whose shadow the Barcelona forward will never shrug off.
At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Maradona produced a similar play, also in a second-round match and one that also ended 1-0. Against Brazil, he picked up the ball in midfield, rode a tackle, ran through the middle and laid off to Claudio Caniggia.
The greatest differences between the two goals was that Messi passed forward into space rather than a reverse pass through bodies, while Di Maria fired first time past Diego Beneglio rather than taking the ball around the goalkeeper – and the opposition on Tuesday night was not Brazil.
Yet it seems almost destined that it might be one day soon. Neither Argentina nor Brazil have impressed over the past three weeks, yet Messi and Neymar have left their marks, dragging their teams to victory when required.
With the two South American sides capable of meeting only in the final (or, the third-place play-off), there is a certain sense of inevitability that these two greatest of rivals will go head to head on the world’s grandest stage.
It would be the dream final, the one that on paper and in people’s imaginations, this engrossing tournament deserves.
From what we have seen so far, however, the football might not be pretty.
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