Playing in a Latin American World Cup, Argentina's players were failing to hit the heights expected during the early stages. But their coach, a pragmatic, defensive sort with a history in La Plata giants Estudiantes, where he lifted the Copa Libertadores, had an ace up his sleeve.
A diminutive No. 10 linked to Barcelona, who had not enjoyed his previous World Cup four years earlier, dragged the Albiceleste through the competition, eventually confirming his place as the greatest player on the planet as the side prevailed as champions.
Is this an ambitious look forward to the fate Lionel Messi could face in the Maracana Stadium in just a few weeks? Not quite. But then again, the parallels between La Pulga's current dominant performances and the 1986 World Cup that belonged to Diego Maradona are eerily similar.
While the ultra-cautious Carlos Bilardo was in charge 28 years ago, it is the turn of fellow Estudiantes graduate Alejandro Sabella to emulate the Doctor's success. A defensive 5-3-2 setup against Bosnia-Herzegovina was perhaps too identical to Bilardo's methods, however, and was quickly discarded in favour of the more enterprising 4-3-3.
But whatever the formation, there is no denying that Leo has been key so far to his team's chances. Four of the six goals snaffled by Argentina in Group F came directly from the Barcelona man's inspired left boot, with the other two product of an own goal and Marcos Rojo's kneecap.
Funny thing is, Messi was probably playing better at this stage in 2010, he just didn't have any goals. This time he's in 'sublime form.'— Dan Colasimone (@ArgentinaFW) June 26, 2014
To put it simply, when Messi has the ball, Argentina look capable of anything. Without him directly involved, goals have been few and far between.
"With Messi, anything is possible," the coach told reporters after watching his captain salvage victory in the final minute of play against Iran. The star had endured a rather poor match against the rank underdogs, who had defended in numbers and with no little quality to keep the little playmaker quiet.
But Leo only needed one moment to make the difference. Like Maradona, "El Pibe de Oro", he knows that in his hands is the power to decide matches with one brilliant flick of his foot.
Indeed, so far Messi has been far more important to Argentina's progress than Maradona was in 1986. The Napoli man hit just one goal in the first four matches, while striking partner Jorge Valdano led the way with three.
That was no mean achievement. The Albiceleste had to squeeze past defending-champions Italy in the group stage, although there was one small consolation for their playmaker: Tormentor-in-chief Claudio Gentile, who in '82 gave one of the most artfully brutal marking displays in modern football history, had already retired from the international game.
Group A colleagues South Korea and Bulgaria did not exactly represent the strongest opposition, but in the last 16 awaited fearsome Uruguay, physical enough to do damage to their South American rivals while possessing, in the scintillating River Plate FC No. 10 Enzo Francescoli, a man with the talent and local knowledge to unlock the country that employed him as a footballer.
Further on would lie arguably the best England team since 1966, a Belgium side inspired by the great Enzo Scifo and West Germany, a few years short of their peak but with Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthaus, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Rudi Voller all in the squad to name a few, a formidable prospect. But then that Argentina team were no pushover, either.
Although official history has been rewritten, both in Argentina and the rest of the world, to present Mexico '86 as "Diego's World Cup" it is slightly misleading. Maradona was key, yes, and his performances from the last eight onwards were vital to his side's triumph.
But he was not alone. As well as Valdano, Bilardo could count on the excellent Jorge Burruchaga for extra attacking impetus. Sergio Batista was a constant presence as the holding midfielder, anchoring the team throughout and never missing a beat in the centre, while behind him Oscar Ruggeri has gone into history as one of the Albiceleste's finest-ever defenders.
It says something about the talent in that team that 1978 captain Daniel Passarella and the incomparable Independiente playmaker Ricardo Bochini were unused substitutes in the final.
Perhaps then, Messi's prowess so far in an Argentine World Cup that has been infinitely kinder in terms of the draw than that faced by the 1986 vintage, is not the main story. The Barcelona man deserves credit for what he has done so far. Only one other Argentine, Oreste Corbatta back in 1958, has managed to score in all three group-stage matches during a World Cup. But that tournament was a fiasco, with Argentina exiting in the first round. A further warning about the dangers of leaving one man to do the work of 11.
The real challenge for Sabella's men lies beyond the man who has inherited Maradona's iconic No. 10 jersey. El Diego was untouchable in 1986, with his performances against England and Belgium heightening his status to almost unbelievable altitudes. But he did not do it alone. When things got tough, he could call on his supporting cast to take down the opposition.
Can Gonzalo Higuain bounce back from an off-key group stage to emulate Valdano's goal-scoring exploits? Can Angel Di Maria provide the same engine from the middle of the pitch as Burruchaga did? Can Javier Mascherano prove as solid a midfield presence as Batista? It is around these questions, as much as Messi's own contribution, that Argentina's 2014 World Cup fate will be sealed.
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