This has been the pilgrimage of Doha, the faithful moving from one shrine to another to see the redeemer redeem that one glaring fault line in his life.
All of us have been guilty of hyperbole, making a man bigger than the tournament unfolding or the game that everyone is playing. But Messi plays this better than most, his movements measured, steps unhurried as he looks like the only one at ease with the destiny that’s about to unfold.
Argentina was out for the warmups 30 minutes prior to the match, and as Messi jogged and hit a few shots, the songs for the patron saint were up as if the crowd had it already buffered. The stadium of blue and white with a tiny island of yellow tucked in a corner was sending Argentina some energy boost and it needed it plenty as a dogged workmanlike Australia ran it ragged.
The Argentines played a game of steal, Rodrigo De Paul and Nicolas Otamendi the two men snapping as the others kept the ball in preparation of the tenacious Australian press that was soon to come. The Australians just ran; they anticipated a night of pain, where every muscle would be stretched.
Argentina kept changing positions, passing around to draw out an opening in the Aussie formation, but the Aussies kept their shape, keeping two lines of four ahead of its box. Without the desired space opening, Papu Gomez tried a shot from the top of the box. But this was meant for the surveillance drone keeping an eye and not the goal that he had eyed.
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The game was drifting. Then, the famous left foot scored. The goal was about placement and not power as the ball crept between Harry Souttar’s legs and the goalkeeper’s stretch. This was the only shot on target in the half and Messi made it count. It was Aziz Behich, the Aussie journeyman from Dundee United, who ignited the fire with a shove to Messi, who till then was politely plodding and seemed no threat.
This was his first goal in a World Cup knockout and the 789th in a career of 1000 professional games. He took the freekick from the right and then (for a change) had a spring in his step to collect the rebound off Souttar’s head. It was quickly passed around between Alex Mac Allister, De Paul and Otamendi and Messi then cushioned it with his foot before piercing the Aussie resistance with another swing of the boot.
The crowd was screaming for an encore, and no one was complaining about this never-ending worship of the hero.
As Lionel Scaloni switched to a back three, Argentina enjoyed the extra width, and Messi, too, was relishing the attention as he went on his zigzagging runs, evoking memories of Barcelona’s 2008-09 treble triumph.
The sturdy Aussies were losing their nerve and Mat Ryan had to bear the brunt. A back pass coming his way created panic as De Paul hurriedly pressed. With his attention on Argentina’s No. 7, Ryan missed the presence of Enzo Alvarez. The Benfica revelation made the most of the blindsided ‘keeper to rob the ball and then turn and roll it into the empty net.
The Aussie goal was most unexpected as Craig Goodwin’s hopeful kick hit Enzo and changed trajectory to loop past a stranded Emiliano Martinez. Australia was suddenly perked up and a panicky Argentina was now wasting time as suddenly its lead looked thin like the paper dosa of Ananda Bhavan in Chennai.
The Aussies were winning the tackles and every loose ball the Argentines sprayed and it seemed there was another cruel twist in fate. But then Messi said there’s nothing to worry as he zipped past the perplexed Aussies with a minute left. He pushed the ball to Lautaro Martinez wide, the whole stadium pleading him to hit it right to calm down the fast-beating heart, but his kick went soaring like the out-of-control blood pressure of all of us.
There was some fancy footwork in the end, like that of the break dancers who will be in Paris next, and it seemed the Aussies were defending with two left legs. But then the ball was at the other end, Australia throwing crosses to the dozen and Emiliano was throwing himself headlong to block the last attempt.
The whistle came and Argentina rejoiced. Here, too, Messi was leading the celebrations and the dance with the fans, who, come Friday, will be inside the golden domes of Lusail to continue this pilgrimage.
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