FROM BUENOS AIRES: If one were to say three years ago that Lionel Messi would be cheered and given all the affection he needed in Buenos Aires and not Barcelona, they would be asked from what parallel universe did they come from.
It was both ironic for soccer fans as well as comforting for Argentines to see that bit of energy that he showed Wednesday night. There was a certain bit of solace that you saw in the first half when Messi attacked non-stop and was serving some impressive dagger-like, defense-splitting passes to Di María, Lavezzi, Palacio and even to Hugo Campagnaro at right back.
The goals didn’t come at a fast and furious pace, but the chances were being generated against a Soca Warrior backline that at times could not keep up with the constant movement of the Argentine attack and the pressure that they would place on the visitors when they looked to play the ball out of the back.
He even came close on various occasions to scoring. In the first half, Messi had two chances to score. One of the efforts saw Messi’s shot drift just wide of the Trinidad goal after a series of passes that put him in front of target and could have opened up the scoring for the Albiceleste.
In the dying moments of the first half, Ángel Di María pulled a rabbit out of the hat and ended up all alone in front of goal. Instead of taking the shot and making it 1-0, Di María decided to give the ball to the oncoming Messi to slam it home in front of an empty net. As soon as he was about to touch that ball with his right foot, Messi had the ball deflected by a Trinidadian defender. The eventual result on that play was a header by Rodrigo Palacio off the ensuing corner. The play was truly an embodiment of the selflessness that the squad has in knowing who needed to score a goal in order to be able to reaffirm himself. At the same time, his teammates were there to back him when the ball was not going in.
For those that constantly harped on how Leo Messi was saving himself for the World Cup, the answer was for all to see on Wednesday night’s match between Argentina and Trinidad. There was little doubt that he looked refreshed — both mentally and physically — as he ran at Soca Warrior defenders for a greater portion of the match at El Monumental. More importantly, Messi was looking for contact.
Everyone at the stadium saw that when he’d take on three defenders at a time and would find an open man on the wings. Yet the play that embodied it all was in the early part of the second half. Messi made a run into the heart of the Trinidad defense and was brought down just outside the box, according to Uruguayan referee Daniel Fedorczuk.
The moment seemed like one of those where you expected magic to occur. That free kick was one where you knew that Messi could do everything and anything with. One by one lights began to come on over at the Sívori section of El Monumental. Each light looking to forever capture a moment that would be eternal. It looked to be a moment that many wanted to show friends and future generations that they personally saw with their own two eyes (and smart phone).
It didn’t come out as planned as Messi’s free kick got past Jan Michael Williams but the post would deny him a fantastic goal. Or did it? The ball ended up right in front of Javier Mascherano who knocked it in for the second goal of the match. I guess we can call it a “perfect assist” by one Barcelona player to another.
Messi didn’t score on this night. This is the greatest irony of all. A few years ago, Messi would have been criticized for not putting his shots into the back of the net. Yet there was a frenetic pace from Messi that on this evening was only matched by the Trinidadian drum section that sat over at the Oriental Alta right on the Avenida Figueroa Alcorta that made the trip from the Islands to support their side. That was appreciated by fans a great deal. So much so, that every time Argentina had a corner kick and Messi would take it each corner of the stadium would stand and cheer for him.
That evening in northern Buenos Aires felt like as if we lived in a parallel universe. A place where Messi was no longer feeling like a prophet in his own land. He finally made peace with the fans that once had him inexplicably under a microscope at times for things like not being vocal, not scoring and not being Maradona. Now they understand that he is not vocal and he is not Maradona — he is Messi. Now is when the majority of Argentine are realizing that and they are doing something that the rest of the world has done for a while now — cherishing him.