Argentina Need More from Muted Messi to Avenge 1990 Final Agony

Daniel Edwards@@DanEdwardsGoalFeatured ColumnistJuly 9, 2014

Argentina's Lionel Messi is hugged by Lucas Biglia after Argentina defeated the Netherlands 4-2 in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 tie after extra time to advance to the finals during the World Cup semifinal soccer match between the Netherlands and Argentina at the Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo Brazil, Wednesday, July 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

In Buenos Aires, just reaching the final feels like a brilliant achievement for millions of elated football fans. An entire city ground to a halt throughout Wednesday, and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. local time, there was not a soul on the streets. The masses began to emerge shortly after Sergio Romero's penalty heroics confirmed an agonising victory over Netherlands. 

Argentina's Independence Day celebrations on July 9 were capped by thousands of people descending on the Obelisk monument and the Plaza de Mayo, traditional sites of national joy or grievance. No less than 24 years have been hard to take for a football-crazy country, and the title is so close it can almost be touched. 

All that stands in the way is Germany, whose 7-1 demolition of Brazil was received with mixed feelings locally. There was Schadenfreude by the truckload as the hosts' humiliating exit was confirmed; equally, nerves at a potential final meeting, even though nobody could even dare say it prior to Maxi Rodriguez's winning penalty, were already starting to emerge. 

Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

If the Albiceleste are to add one more victory to their 2014 World Cup campaign, they will need to improve following a tense, nerve-racking encounter with the Dutch team. In particular, one man, captain Lionel Messi, must step up and once and for all banish those doubts over his performances with the national team. 

The semi-final was just not Messi's day. In the first half, he raised a few hopes with a dangerous free-kick that, eschewing his usual "up and over" method, he speared toward the goal. Netherlands 'keeper Jasper Cillessen, however, was equal to the task, and from that point onward, the Barcelona wizard had an extremely forgettable match. 

Just like in the preceding five clashes, La Pulga was not given a moment of peace in Sao Paulo. He was marked incessantly by two or even three players, who were determined to unsettle the captain and stop him from breaking loose. Even late in the game, when he appeared to be playing as a central midfielder, Messi's unwanted entourage never let him out of sight. 

But there is a remedy for such situations. If three players are on Messi, logic dictates that spaces will appear elsewhere. However, be it through his own weakness or poor movement from his team-mates, those spaces did not appear regularly enough for the star to use. Far too much of his distribution failed to reach the target, as is usually such a danger with the ball at his feet. 

Frank Augstein/Associated Press

The absence of Angel Di Maria seemed to affect Messi more than any other player. Enzo Perez was excellent in the midfield until coming off toward the end of regular time, but his positioning and association with Messi simply failed to have the same impact as when the Real Madrid man is marauding down the flanks.

Once Perez was withdrawn in favour of Sergio Aguero and Rodrigo Palacio, forcing Messi to plug the gap in the middle, Fideo's absence was felt even more acutely. 

There was finally a happy ending for Argentina's captain, so decisive in the team's journey to the World Cup's latter stages. After watching Romero perform a brilliant save to deny Ron Vlaar in the very first penalty, Messi stepped up and had to convert Argentina's opener to consolidate the advantage. That he did perfectly, sliding the ball past Cillessen and putting the Albiceleste on the way to victory. 

But the time has come for the star to be in the spotlight once and for all. In Germany, the Argentines face formidable final opposition, and Messi's best will be needed for his nation to celebrate a third World Cup.