Is there anything this man cannot do?
Once again on the brink of cataclysm, Lionel Messi came up with another batch of late-game wizardry to save his nation.
Switzerland pushed the Argentinian superstar and his team through full time and most of extra time on Tuesday, threatening a do-or-die penalty kick situation much like what Brazil faced over the weekend against Chile. Then, in the 119th minute, Messi got free and set up Angel Di Maria with a heavenly pass that resulted in another heart-stopping game-winner.
Argentina's 1-0 win pushes it to the quarterfinal round, where it awaits the winner of the Belgium-USA match.
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The pattern followed by Argentina in its path through this tournament is already well-worn: mediocre tactical play throughout the game, followed by Messi finding some way to win the day. The pre-tournament questions about whether Messi could lift his team in a setting like this have been answered again and again – against Bosnia-Herzegovina, against Iran, and here again against the Swiss in a knockout round game. A woefully underperforming Argentina team has been dragged along by a wonderfully overwhelming superstar.
Messi's game-winning plays have largely occurred late in games, and largely with only a sliver of space. Argentina seems to be at a standstill for huge chunks of time until Messi works his way into a realm where he can make something happen. His clutch assist against Switzerland was the latest goal ever scored by Argentina in World Cup history. It prevented a penalty kick round and perhaps a premature exit from a tournament the Argentines can certainly win.
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The lesson for Argentina's next opponent is both heartening and troubling: on the one hand, it seems these favorites can be beaten. On the other hand, it seems Messi cannot. Coach Alejandro Sabella has been so far unable to start the engine of one of the most talented teams on the planet, and outmanned sides have looked far better than they should against a team that includes Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Di Maria and others. Instead of working through Messi, Argentina is relying on Hail Mary crossing passes that usually end up flying harmlessly through the penalty box. It's maddening to watch Messi used (or misused) like this. And it seems like a more potent team will take advantage of these stretches of bland play.
For now, though, Messi is authoring one of the more memorable World Cup runs in recent memory. Even one of these last-gasp plays would endear any player to his nation. Messi has several of them before the quarterfinal stage.
He's been called "messiah" and "redeemer."
On Tuesday, again in the nick of time, he was Messi The Creator.
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