What a difference a match makes. Right up to the morning of the game Lionel Messi still had doubters back in his homeland. He's been accused of never translating his Barcelona form onto the international stage, and not showing enough desire when playing for his country. Messi never used to show up for Argentina (supposedly). By midway through the second half of Saturday's match, with Vincent Enyeama having made a string of great saves to deny him, the TV commentators confirmed Argentina had become a 'Messi-dependent' side.
Just think, all it took to win them over was a performance including mazy runs, intelligent link play, selfless positioning... oh, and more shots on target than any entire team had managed up to that point in this year's World Cup. Everyone knew Barcelona's No. 10 was quite a handy player. Saturday, June 12 2010 will go down in history as the day everyone in his homeland realised Argentina's No. 10 really is the same man.
The reaction in Argentina was, for a change, as positive towards Messi as the reaction in the rest of the world always is. And there's a very real feeling that now he's finally cracked it, we may just have seen the last of 'ordinary' Lionel Messi for Argentina. Bear in mind that he's played well for them on numerous previous occasions, and still had snide comments along the lines of 'let's see if he can keep this up,' in the next morning's papers. Saturday was quite an achievement.
Perhaps even stranger though, Gabriel Heinze is going to have nice things written about him too. Admittedly, he wasn't exactly revelatory at left back, but scoring the game's only goal and managing for a change not to get booked whilst playing for Argentina will do wonders for him in the eyes of many. The performance may not have been brilliant (Messi aside), but the win is the most important thing in the opening match of a World Cup, and as such the man who gave it to them gets a little grace.
Two players will come under the spotlight in quite a severe fashion in the next few days though: Gonzalo Higuain and Jonas Gutierrez.
In all honesty I felt sorry for Jonas (as he's called here). He knows he's not a right back. Argentina supporters know he's not a right back. Diego Maradona knows he's not a right back. Yet if you want to play with a right back who, when your team have the ball, will be encouraged to join the midfield, Maradona apparently thinks that in spite of - as I may have mentioned - not being a right back, Jonas is still a better man for the job than (to pick an example totally out of thin air) Javier Zanetti, say. If only Zanetti was Argentine, hey? Oh hang on...
Jonas did far better when Nicolas Burdisso - who at least has played right back more than two or three times before - was introduced and the Newcastle United man moved over to Angel Di María's left midfield berth, and I was delighted for him, because at full back the poor guy was consistently as little as a couple of yards (and much as quite a lot of yards) out of position when Nigeria switched the ball to his flank. He was given the run around by Chinedu Ogbuke, and don't be surprised if Maradona reverts to using four centre backs in defence in the knockout stages, assuming Argentina progress.
Higuain, at least, was playing in a position he's familiar with, and whilst it could be argued there was a better option than him, it would be hard to suggest as I have with Jonas that it was just plain silly to put him there. His scoring record for Madrid fell off towards the end of the season, and he missed good chances in the selección's only warm-up match, against Canada. That seems to have dented his confidence, and I can't see his two first half misses on Saturday doing him any good either.
On the bench, Maradona can call on Diego Milito, who finished his club season absolutely on fire, but who Maradona simply doesn't seem to trust, giving him just 12 minutes yesterday (in which he linked the play well and sent Messi through for a chance to kill the game - more than Higuaín managed in the previous 78). It was yet another token appearance for a striker I strongly suspect the manager felt forced to call up after the manner in which he finished the campaign for Inter Milan.
Seba Veron will be let off some of his mistakes, meanwhile, thanks to the fact that he plays his club football 'at home' these days. I've stated numerous times on Soccernet how much I enjoy watching Veron, and that still holds true in the context of Argentine domestic football and the Copa Libertadores. For this team, though, he's too slow and doesn't play naturally far forward enough to be in the starting XI, for my money (better to bring him in late on if the side need someone to recycle possession and take the pressure off when defending a lead). His passing was uncharacteristically woeful against Nigeria, and lacked adventure. On at least two occasions I was convinced he was about to slip a through ball in for Messi or the also excellent Carlos Tevez, only for him to open his body and hit the ball out wide (for a throw in, on both the occasions I can recall).
Whilst there's a lot to improve on from the team, then, Messi has finally cracked it. Argentina probably won't win this World Cup, but in spite of that you might one day be telling your grandchildren that South Africa 2010 was the tournament when Lionel Messi finally stepped it up on the international stage. Argentines have waited a while, but the 'Messi-ah' has finally arrived.