Photograph courtesy of ESPNFC
It is a poignant picture. His teammates, arms linked, while Lionel Messi backs the action, a couple of feet away, disconnected and despondent. Gonzalo Higuain had launched his penalty into the Santiago sky, effectively bringing Argentina’s slim hopes crashing down to earth. The metaphors abound. When Matias Fernandez crashed his penalty into the top left corner of the goal, there was almost certainly only one winner from there on. Messi, managing to suppress the nerves he has spoken of having in recent times, buried his 3rd penalty of the tournament in supremely confident fashion but his teammates could not follow suit. Gonzalo Higuain, ravaged by the demons of critical misses in recent times, eviscerated himself after watching his penalty fly over the bar. His anger at himself for yet again personally failing to fulfil expectations.
Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi contrived to squander a brilliant chance created by Messi at the death (after a scintillating dribble which took him past two). While Higuain was the easy target (and indeed, there is a video circulating in which Gabriel Batistuta scores for Argentina from a very similar chance), it was a difficult chance to take. Ezequiel Lavezzi, once dubbed the new Maradona at Napoli, should have taken the chance – it was a higher percentage play. But he passed the buck.
It would be remiss to assert that Lionel Messi stood up in the final while his teammates collapsed under the weight of expectation. As hard as he tried, Chile’s pressure was too suffocating, to complete. His every first touch was buffeted with Chilean aggression, both on the pitch and in the stands. 10 fouls suffered (and could have been much more), a microcosm of how Argentina’s hopes, so heavily pinned on one man, were stifled and extinguished. The No.10 did not dominate. There were flickers of his genius but where this supernova needed his other superstars to bring the light, he only encountered white dwarves. Jorge Sampaoli had spent sleepless nights figuring out how to stop ‘the best player in the world’, eventually putting an extra man in midfield to reduce space and create more obstacles to his penetrating dribbles. It worked. With Messi constantly harried, Argentina could not develop any consistent rhythm.
Photograph courtesy of The World Game
Although they needed penalties to win, there was no doubt as to the better team. Where Argentina played with hesitancy, Chile played with purpose. Like a club-side, they knew and understood their system perfectly. Argentina, on the other hand, lacked one. Once again, as Angel Di Maria hobbled off the pitch, Argentina’s attack was blunted. At a point in the second half, Pastore dribbled towards the left and played a pass…to no one. Marcos Rojo had not made the run. It was a snapshot of the lack of Argentine cohesion on show. Gerardo Martino also has to take some of the blame. His players’ conditioning was lacking (Mascherano, Di Maria and Lavezzi all notably hobbling), reviving questions which surrounded his players’ fitness during his team at Barcelona. His substitutions routinely lacked thought – they were usually automatic (Banega for Pastore, Higuain for Aguero – bookies would refuse to take bets). Or bad (such as bringing on Higuain instead of Tevez).
Collectively, Argentina failed again but silver will not be greeted like it was last year. Time is running out for a brilliant collection of individuals but until they can play to their potential as a team, victory will continue to elude them. For Lionel Messi, the comparisons with Maradona will continue – he has won nothing of note with Argentina, yes, but it would ignore the simple fact that one man can never win a thing on his own. 3 major silver medals tell a tale of near-misses. Close, but no cigar. More than anybody else, Lionel Messi will view this is another failure.