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Roughly 19 hours after Cristiano Ronaldo sent soccer’s version of a meteor soaring through the Sochi night, Lionel Messi sent a free kick of his own clattering into an Icelandic wall. Seconds later, a whistle blew. Messi lashed out at the ball in frustration. And takes flew. Takes of all kinds.
Messi always chokes! Messi is crumbling under pressure!
And worst of all: Messi is no longer the GOAT!
But now that it’s hopefully subsided, and now that emotions are hopefully no longer clouding logic, can we please acknowledge how absurd that idea – that Ronaldo, on the back of 21 hours in Russia, surpassed Messi – is?
Saturday was not Messi’s finest moment. As Sergio Aguero said after the match, “he’s human.”
But the argument that 180 minutes would separate two players who have played roughly 130,000 combined minutes of professional soccer in their careers is just preposterous. Messi has scored plenty of hat tricks, including one to singlehandedly drag Argentina to the 2018 World Cup. Ronaldo has missed plenty of penalties, including two in Champions League semifinals; one in a Champions League final shootout; and, oh by the way, one in the Euro 2016 group stage that cost Portugal two points.
GOAT debates weren’t decided on those nights, just as they weren’t decided when this same Iceland team shut down Ronaldo two years ago, just as they weren’t when Messi won a 2014 World Cup group stage game in stoppage time, just as they weren’t when Messi skipped by a Swiss defender and set up a 117th-minute winner two weeks later.
Recency bias is a heck of a drug, but let’s let the effects wear off before we start spouting nonsense. As great as Ronaldo’s performance was, and as fallible as Messi was, we’ll forget about those 21 hours if Messi leads Argentina to the semis while Ronaldo and Portugal flame out without a knockout round victory.
Which is why the biggest loser of Day 3 at the 2018 World Cup wasn’t Messi; it wasn’t Argentina; it was …
Unless you were right on the fence of the Ronaldo-Messi dispute entering the World Cup, Friday and Saturday shouldn’t change your opinion.
Oh, and it doesn’t change the fact that at club level – where the vast majority of professional soccer is played, and which is the best barometer for a variety of other reasons – Messi eclipses Ronaldo in almost every relevant category.
Loser: Lionel Messi
Messi was certainly a loser on the day as well. He was a loser for a few reasons, all of which were encapsulated in his postmatch reaction. He ripped off his captain’s armband, and stood near midfield, dumbfounded, either soaking up the scene or simply too exhausted and exasperated to move.
We’ll refrain from amateur psychology, but if Messi were fed up with his teammates, it would be tough to blame him. It’s not that they were inept; it’s that their dependence on him has become so ingrained, so habitual, that there is no Plan B. And in many cases, it’s not that those players incapable of providing Plan Bs; it’s that they don’t even try.
Messi, of course, was also fed up with himself, and he took responsibility after the match. “The penalty would have changed everything,” he said.
But he won’t fail like that again in Russia. The real issue for Argentina Saturday was that it looks like Messi can’t afford to be anything less than a superstar if La Albiceleste is going to make a deep run.
Winner: Scandinavian goalkeepers who may or may not be film directors
Saturday’s star was Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorson. Not only did he swat away Messi’s penalty; he made six saves in all, including this massive diving stop in injury time:
He also has an IMDb page; he was the director of Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision contest entry; and his was the mind behind this fantastic pre-World Cup commercial:
Halldorsson is winning in multiple fields. But he wasn’t the only Scandinavian goalkeeper to star on Saturday. Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel made six saves of his own, two of which were heroic stops in the second half to preserve a 1-0 victory over Peru.
Loser: Peru in the penalty box
Peru-Denmark was the most entertaining match of the day. So why did it yield only one goal? [Shoots accusatory glance at Peru.]
The Peruvians were excellent overall. But we’ll get to that in a second. Because when they crossed a white line at the end of the field they were attacking, everything went awry. They missed all kinds of opportunities. They screwed shots wide. They were repelled by Schmeichel. More often than not, they overelaborated and didn’t get off proper shots.
And Christian Cueva, the best player on the field, skied a first-half penalty waaaaay over the crossbar.
Winner: Peru everywhere else
But set aside the penalty miss. And set aside the result. Peru won over a lot of hearts and minds on Saturday. It played exhilarating, radiant soccer. Cueva, in particular, dazzled all night. It was tough to not cry with him as his emotions cracked after the wayward pen, and again at the final whistle.
And when we label Peru a winner, we aren’t just talking about the 11 players on the field, or manager Ricardo Gareca. The entire nation of Peru won Saturday, even if scoreboards disagreed. Peruvians everywhere belted out their national anthem before a World Cup match for the first time since 1982.
They took over Russia with their songs and their pride.
Peru, as we warned before the tournament, is the most emotional team at the 2018 World Cup. And whether that will help or hurt it going forward, its emotions are endearing it to viewers around the globe.
The three biggest winners of the World Cup so far have been Ronaldo, Putin and VAR. FIFA’s video review system was pretty close to flawless once again on Saturday. It correctly awarded clear and obvious penalties to France and Peru, all while being unobtrusive. It changed games for the better without emitting any negative side-effects.
The only complaints arrived when VAR wasn’t used – once when Argentinean winger Christian Pavon appeared to have been tripped in the penalty box, and again when Denmark’s Yussuf Poulson took down Peru’s Edison Flores:
But there’s a good chance the Pavon call wouldn’t have been overturned, because it wasn’t “clear and obvious.” And let’s remember these complaints next time fans argue that VAR is used too much. You can’t have it both ways.
Plus, the Pavon and Flores incidents would provoke similar complaints if VAR wasn’t in use at all. The Cueva and Griezmann penalties would have as well. VAR continues to improve the game, despite the controversy it occasionally incites.
Winner: Iceland’s pressing scheme
Postgame reaction to Argentina 1, Iceland 1 honed in on four things: Messi, Argentina’s dependence on him, Halldorsson, and the romantic side of the Icelandic story. But how about a little love for the soccer the underdogs played?
We won’t dissect the X’s and O’s, but they forced Argentina to play into their hands so well. They funneled the ball into certain areas, then converged on those areas as a united. This was a bus-park, yes – and it certainly wasn’t a high press – but the pressing scheme, mostly triggered 20-40 yards from goal, was very detailed. And of course, it was very well executed.
Loser: Jorge Sampaoli
Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli knew exactly what Iceland was going to do, which made his lineup decisions all the more inexplicable. He played two defensive-minded No. 6s against a low block. Those two players, Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano, represented Argentina’s biggest problem. When Messi dropped deep to pick up the ball, neither holding mid was capable of advancing beyond him and creating.
Meanwhile, Giovani Lo Celso, Ever Banega and Paulo Dybala were sitting on the bench. Only Banega ever got off it.
And Jorge … Why the heck is Willy Caballero starting in goal?
Loser: Willy Caballero
Caballero, with all due respect, should not be anywhere near a World Cup field in the year 2018. Franco Armani, who was the presumed Sergio Romero replacement, is significantly better. Caballero’s lack of agility is agonizing. And he was at fault on Iceland’s goal:
Loser: Didier Deschamps
Deschamps picked the lineup many wanted him to pick, with Ousmane Dembele up front alongside Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, and with Corentin Tolisso in for Blaise Matuidi in midfield. He also got three points in a 2-1 victory over Australia.
But his Bleus didn’t look particularly impressive getting them, and there are identifiable reasons they’re struggling. Deschamps is running out of lineup tweaks to make France more coherent. The issue, it’s becoming clear, isn’t the lineup, but rather Deschamps’ plan – or lack thereof.
Not only did Croatia beat Nigeria 2-0, it also got a near-ideal result in the Iceland-Argentina game. Only 0-0 would have been better. It sits atop Group D, and is in great shape to advance.
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