This might just be his World Cup after all. Lionel Messi must battle football opponents and the sands of time in equal measure this month but he dismissed both with a flourish that, whatever becomes of him and Argentina from here, made a mockery of fears he would leave this stage quietly. His side were a slip away from oblivion on an intense, pressured and niggly night where the possible consequences manifestly stifled everyone in view. Messi was among that number until breaching a limited Mexico, whose involvement now hangs by a thread, in thrilling style. It guarantees him at least one more dance atop the pinnacle of a sport he has bent to his will.
Messi’s left-footed finish was outdone aesthetically by a sumptuous late curler from Enzo Fernández but only one of the goals has a chance of resounding through the ages. It silenced the sighs, minutes previously, when he sent a wayward pass over the left touchline. Argentina had barely created an opening with the second half nearing its midway point but, after Ángel Di María had clipped a deliberate ball across from the opposite side, the tenor shifted emphatically.
Di María had located a rare sliver of space 22 yards out but Messi’s first touch, cushioning the ball to set up the shot, was simple yet masterful poetry. It meant he could take aim before a diving Héctor Herrera was able to block, raking a precise low drive to Guillermo Ochoa’s left and bringing pandemonium. Argentina would have been sent home had they lost: there was no chance of that now and the latter stages brought reminders of how compelling this team may look when cutting loose. The memory of Messi’s desolation upon bowing out to France in Kazan four years ago remains poignant; as he pirouetted near halfway and set another counterattack in train with the task almost done, there was an altogether different sense of sheer enjoyment.
What an occasion the first genuinely big-ticket event of Qatar 2022 turned out to be. It is difficult to suspend one’s profound unease around the foundations on which this competition was built but, taking it on its own merits, the atmosphere inside this gaping arena was nothing short of electric. The host nation could not have asked for a more vibrant audiovisual display to show its audience: the hymns from galleries flowing with light blue echoed under the roof and were almost matched in volume from the cacophony emitted by large pockets of Mexicans, outnumbered but insistently present, clad in green.
Every one of them knew the stakes. So did those on the field and there was evident appetite to show it. Within seven minutes Alexis Vega, the Mexico forward, had left Gonzalo Montiel writhing with a flung arm and dumped Rodrigo De Paul on his backside. Soon De Paul found himself the centre of attention again, thudded into Andrés Guardado, and if Mexico lacked edge in their attacking forays they were happy to compensate through snap and snarl.
Néstor Araujo proved the point next, leaving Marcos Acuña in a heap with a challenge that took ball and a sizeable chunk of man. De Paul, surely feeling victimised by now, was crunched from behind by Vega and Argentina howled when Héctor Moreno appeared to check Messi off the ball.
That is a distillation of the opening period’s rap sheet, and more or less its action, although Argentina were far from angels themselves. The right-back Montiel, one of five newcomers to Lionel Scaloni’s starting lineup, showed as much before half-time when sending Erick Gutiérrez, who had recently replaced the injured Guardado, flying into the air. But their greater preoccupation was to find a semblance of rhythm and, by the break, it had eluded them.
Had Scaloni changed too much? They showed little cohesion despite a steadily improved share of territory, the decision to drop Leandro Paredes from the midfield looking particularly suspect. Messi sought oxygen but found one of Mexico’s three centre-backs, usually Moreno, stepping out to smother. He managed to nod ambitiously over and forced Ochoa to punch away an angled set-piece; Lautaro Martínez was wayward with a header but the most eyecatching moment came when Emiliano Martínez, perhaps keen to offer the cameramen a spectacle away from the surrounding collage, dived to catch Vega’s free-kick.
The quality had to be better. Or maybe it did not, because the tension and aversion to defeat was plainly inhibiting all concerned. Four minutes after the restart Argentina threatened their slickest move yet when Alexis Mac Allister sent Messi towards the box only for Gutiérrez to dive in illegally. Messi drifted the free-kick high to audible groans. The concern grew louder when Messi and Lautaro Martínez failed to read each other, the former finding only the advertising hoardings.
Ye of little faith. Messi quickly rolled back the years and passed to Fernández for the cherry on top. This troubled jamboree retains its most essential source of life.