FIFA World Cup: Creator and his creation

Messi's surreal run, dribble and pass for Alvarez's second goal had stamp of the past
Messi has successfully attempted more complex skills in his career but what he did in Doha on Tuesday wasn't normal...(Photo | AP)
Messi has successfully attempted more complex skills in his career but what he did in Doha on Tuesday wasn't normal...(Photo | AP)

CHENNAI: It's 68 minutes 31 seconds on the clock. Argentina have a throw-in in the middle third of the pitch. Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez take up positions to receive it. Messi clearly instructs Alvarez to occupy Josko Gvardiol so that it gives Messi space to dribble if Alvarez does win the knockdown. When the throw-in comes Alvarez's way, the move is already taking shape in Messi's mind.

The Manchester City forward wins the challenge and Messi is in business. While he doesn't possess the pace he once had, he still has the acceleration and motors past Gvardiol. Just when it looks like Messi is on the goal-side of the defender, the Croat has caught up.

Messi's first three touches enables him to make up some ground on Gvardiol but the 20-year-old, 15-years Messi's junior, makes up the lost ground. So far, this is textbook defending. It's reported that Gvardiol's value is north of 80 million pounds and you can see why. Keeping pace with Messi can be an arduous task but he also manages to show him on his outside.

Anyone who has seen Messi play will know his favoured move of cutting inside, dribbling in from the right half-space. Both Gvardiol and the covering defender, Dejan Lovren, have effectively shut that gap. The Argentine takes four more touches. He has the ball at the edge of the Croatian box but he's left with a choice.

He has the option of passing the ball back to one of the two Argentine bodies outside the D in central areas. There is also the more risky option of finding Alvarez who has kept pace with him. But the 22-year-old striker, high on confidence after scoring and winning the penalty earlier in the evening, has three Croatian bodies next to him.

So, Messi takes a third option. Having already turned to have his back to goal, he spins once again. Think of him as an Indian auto rickshaw driver who has landed two back-to-back 180 degree executions with the vehicle in a narrow alleyway to the bemusement of both the passengers inside and the pedestrians outside. Here, Gvardiol, who's caught on his heels for a fraction of a second, is both the passengers and the pedestrians. But he recovers well to shift his entire body weight to try and limit the impending damage of a third Argentine goal.

The damage, though, is already done. The path Messi will take is already lit, with the red carpet visible. Gvardiol, who has been a silhouette since the move began, is not even a shadow as Messi has left him in his rearview mirror. It's to Gvardiol's credit that the only space available was on his outside. It's to Messi's credit that he finds that space in the first place. He dribbles a couple of more times near the byline before slipping the simplest of passes for Alvarez whose first-time effort gave him a second goal of the night. It's 68:46 on the clock.

Fifteen seconds is not a lot of time, for example it takes the average human roughly 10 seconds to type this sentence. For a genius like Messi, 15 seconds is more than enough to travel 80 metres with the ball, twist and turn multiple times, deceive one of the best young defenders before supplying the assist in the semifinal. Argentina won 3-0.

Messi has successfully attempted more complex skills in his career but what he did in Doha on Tuesday wasn't normal. This was 2010 Messi. This was Messi under Pep Guardiola. This was Messi in Camp Nou. This was Messi displaying his talents for the first time, when he was a right-winger, had long hair and used to treat opposition players like traffic cones in a training session. This was Messi in excelsis. This was, in effect, Messi paying homage to himself. A veteran conjurer reliving their first magic trick. The band from Ocean's XI getting together for an origin story. The 10 seconds or so really captures his genius, it explains why he's been sui generis for such a long time.

A few years ago, former Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, had made an observation about Messi. "If you love football, you love to watch Messi," he had said. Forget that. In Doha, Messi is playing his greatest hits to win around non-believers as well. That includes Real Madrid fan accounts.

At the same venue on Sunday, he will wear that famous sky blue for what is likely to be his last dance. He will try and go through his vast repertoire of skills in his tool box a feint here, a shimmy there, maybe a slalom, a drop of the shoulder, a curling effort from outside the box, a jink in the box among others — in search of the one glory that has continued to elude him for all his adult life.

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