Mother Russia 2018 was the mission – win at Ecuador at 2,800m above sea level. Just to put this into proper perspective – it’s the same team that beat Argentina 2-0, in the opening round of this world cup qualifying series.
The narrative before kickoff was alarming. Could they make it, are we going to see a Messi-less WC? It behoves on us that we look at how they got to that point, having not failed to qualify for world cup since 1969 for the 1970 tournament.
It started with Bolivia fielding an ineligible player in the name of Nelson Cabrera. Born and raised in Paraguay, he was capped in 2007 at Copa American centenary, but he decided to change allegiance. Yes, Cabrera fulfilled the Bolivian FA requirements for nationalisation, which is living in the country for just 3 years, but FIFA’s was a 5 year residency period. A cameo appearance in the matches between Chile, which ended in a score draw and win over Peru put Argentina in a tight spot. After the complaints were reviewed, FIFA penalised them and was upheld by CAS. Chile and Peru were awarded 3 points and 3 goals each. It looked like Chile have profited from this ‘Bolivia- gate’ ruling right? The forfeiture hit Argentina as Chile went ahead of them on GD, level on points. Peru on the other hand received a life line as their GD & points tally increased dramatically.
Argentina started their last match with the now popular 3 man back line, Javier Mascherano at the heart. Ecuador on the other hand has a big CF, with 2 quick wingers, spaces that will be left by the wing backs is going to exploited- surely this felt like the wrong formation from the onset.
It took only 43 seconds to showcase the enormity of the task ahead – they conceded a goal from the run of play, made by Romario Ibarra, the alarm was triggered. The effective and potent combo of Messi and Aguero attack was missing with a 100% record – of note is that they have only played twice together in 18 matches. Jorge Sampaoli then decided to tweak his team mainly upfront. With Di Maria starting ahead of Dybala (12 goals for Juventus) or Icardi, he was played very close to Messi.
Credit to them they pulled one back through Messi on the 11th minutes mark. Quick inter play with Di Maria on 30 yards, ran the channel into the final 3rd, hit a cut back to Lionel, as he moved into the space between 2 defenders, placed the ball to the far left of an on-rushing Gk.
On the 19th min, the ball fell kindly in front of him, after an unforced error by a defender, Messi controlled took a few steps and powered into the top left corner of the goal post. There was nothing the Gk could do about that.
After the break, on resumption of play, one could see the altitude setting in slowly but surely, as the men from Buenos Aires weren’t exerting much pressure going forward again, content with possession – in a bid to eke out a win.
The brilliance in the third goal was an affirmation of the title GOAT- talent over hard work. The Ecuadorian defender in a proactive bid to stop the Messi & the ball, thinking Messi would shoot low, made his move with a sliding challenge all but ready to block, but the wizard had other ideas…that chip though – 19 yards out, the best we have seen in this generation.
Albiceleste defied the odds and qualified automatically, carried single handedly by Lionel Messi, with critics and skeptics always on his back regarding his national achievements. Coming off heart breaks in 2014 world cup final, losing to eventual Champions Germany, two loses in Copa America finals and his temporary retirement – the match became the most important of his stellar career.
Be that as it may, irrespective of whether Messi wins the WC or not, his status as GOAT, a football god cannot be debated. His sublime skills, technicality ability and vision has left many opponents easting grass – rivals pray the rosary before facing him, critics muted and neutrals wanting more football & entertainment. Lionel is the first player in history to reach 20 world cup qualifying goals in South America – easy piziee right? Think back on greats like Pele, Diego Maradona, Romario, Bebeto, Claudio Caniggia, Gabriel Batistuta, Antonio de Oliveira- Careca, the real Ronaldo (Nazario de Lima) et al.
About 90% of teams that will grace the football carnival in Russia next year, has been established – while Messi is packing his rucksack and duffel bags, once again he’s proven how fearless & mercy-less he can be, a true Legend of the round leather game in every sense of it, indeed we are blessed to have seen him play – our great grand kids would want to give anything to have seen the flawless symphony, the epitome of man’s unity with the ball and his clarion response to God’s directive – subdue and dominate the earth
-cometh the hour, cometh the man, a world cup without Messi is disservice to humanity!
~Arrivederci to Chile, US, Ghana, Wales, et al- try 2022!