Given the immense pressure on Lionel Messi to galvanise this Argentina team to a first World Cup win in 28 years, he would have been delighted to open his account for the tournament at the first time of asking.
With the Albiceleste leading 1-0 in their tournament opener, the diminutive forward slalomed his way through the Bosnia-Herzegovina defence to rifle home a superb strike, making the game all but safe for his team.
That should have made for a pretty prosperous night for both Messi and Argentina, but for long spells in the match, the Barcelona man struggled.
Argentina boss Alejandro Sabella sprung a surprise by naming a 5-3-2 formation for the clash, but after the team failed to accrue any kind of attacking impetus in the opening 45 minutes, he switched to a more familiar 4-3-3 system at half-time.
Messi admitted after the match the latter is a formation he prefers, per Martin Ziegler of the Mail Online:
As strikers, we prefer that system as it gives us more attacking opportunities and if we don't use that system we suffer a bit.
I was often on my own and so was Kun [Aguero] and it was very difficult, so there are things to be improved on.
Throughout the first half Messi found himself in a host of ineffective positions and immediately shut down by opposition players. As Argentina toiled, he showcased an unusual profligacy in possession and an unfamiliar lack of composure in tight areas.
But after Sabella dispensed of the 5-3-2 system at half-time, Messi looked a lot more comfortable, with Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero helping to comprise a formidable attacking triumvirate. With those two in close proximity, the Barcelona man began to find space on a much more regular basis and started to influence the game in dangerous areas.
Given the measure of his contribution in the second half, Messi was eventually awarded the man-of-the-match award by FIFA:
Sabella agreed with his skipper’s assessment, before paying tribute to the talents of the 27-year-old:
On balance I would give it a 6. We need to improve and part of that is in my hands - it is up to me.
The changes at half-time just produced this improvement. They were playing better together and there was more support around Messi. Once Messi received the ball there was better follow-up and better support.
Given the attacking luxuries Sabella has within his squad, this wasn’t the enterprising performance many were expecting from this Argentina team. But take away the expectancy to play with style as well as substance, and it was a pretty decent night for the Albiceleste.
Bosnia-Herzegovina are arguably the most difficult opponents Argentina have in the group stage and they’ve overcome them. Messi scoring will also provide him with an injection of confidence, especially after going so long without a World Cup goal, as noted here by Opta Joe:
So often in major tournaments the winning team steadily improves throughout, but getting off the mark—regardless of how exciting the performance was—is absolutely vital. Argentina have done exactly that, and after Sabella’s tactical faux pas, they will surely revert to a more familiar setup for the remainder of the tournament.
As for Messi, the passion that exuded from him after netting is something rarely seen from a man who is typically calm and collected. He knows how much pressure is on him to deliver on the big stage and perhaps his tentative early contributions were a reflection of that.
He’s up and running now, though. And as we all know, he can be extremely difficult to halt once he conjures up some goalscoring momentum.