RIO DE JANEIRO -- When the ball hit the net, it was clear that the goal meant a lot to Lionel Messi by the way he ran toward one of the sections packed with Argentina supporters at the Maracana. It meant a lot because a Lionel Messi goal in a World Cup is something rarer than a Siberian tiger. His left-footer against Bosnia was only the second time he left his mark in three tournaments. It took eight games and eight years for Messi to follow-up his delicious 88th-minute run when the Albiceleste hammered Serbia 6-0 in Germany 2006.
To place things in context, that means Messi scored in nine World Cup matches the same amount of goals registered by Neymar in a single game -- Brazil's 3-1 win over Croatia. That also means Messi has so far scored only against former Yugoslavian republics in World Cups, in case you like geeky facts.
More worrying than his goal tally, however, is how he has consistently failed to impress at the international level in this tournament. At the Maracana on Sunday the problem once again manifested; while one could argue that Messi was hampered by Diego Maradona's foolish decision to treat him like any other player in South Africa four years ago, under Alessandro Sabella the team is organized around the four-time Ballon d'Or winner. But Messi's failure to dominate the action against the Bosnians become evident when the half-time statistics showed Messi hadn't had a single shot at goal to that point.
His first came on the 63rd, a free kick that only looked good enough for the NFL. But just when knives were being sharpened in the press box came the run, the dummies and the shot that settled a lackluster World Cup opener for Argentina and brushed away any proper scares the Bosnians could give Sabella's man.
Above all, it seemed to have taken some weight from the Barcelona man's shoulders. "It was a great goal and Lionel needed one. It was an important moment for him to score in front of thousands of Argentine fans in a World Cup. This takes away some of the pressure," his teammate Pablo Zabaleta noted after the game.
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Still, Messi managed only three shots on goal and the ease with which Bosnian defenders dispossessed him for much of the game made some Argentina fans scratch their heads. Especially because the opposition manager, Safet Susic, refused to adopt a plan to man-mark the little genius, focusing instead on several players in a bid to put him off. "It is virtually impossible to follow this guy for 90 minutes and you can also end up with one or two guys booked. We decided that we needed to cut his space with several players," Susic explained.
Blessed with one of the easiest groups in this World Cup, Argentina have time to work things out against Iran and Nigeria. But while the decision to switch from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 is proving quite important to the team as whole, Messi's bizarre history with the World Cup remains quite a problem. One could easily guess that it would be easier for him to be more efficient around players he sees week in and week out, such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but the fact is that even his club season was quite pedestrian for Messi's wonderful standards -- as much as it sounds insane to call a 40-plus goal season pedestrian.
Brazilians have debated this topic effusively thanks to the Jekyll and Hyde performances Ronaldinho used to have when playing for Barcelona and for the Seleção. Messi inherited this cross and nothing but winning a World Cup will suffice if he is to finally banish it. Argentina are certainly among the favorites for the title and other usual suspects have also had less than inspiring starts -- or utterly disastrous in the case of Spain. Few stages could be more appropriate for Messi to blossom than a Maracana packed to the rafters with Albiceleste fans, who have become a sideshow in Brazil thanks to their "invasion" of Rio de Janeiro. Messi scored a beauty and that might be the first of many, but it was never domination.
That being said, to single Messi out for Argentina's woes is ludicrous. It wasn't his fault that Sabella opted for a curious 3-5-2 formation in the first half that seemed to respect Bosnia too much while also isolating their leader at the same time. The absence of more attacking players curbed Messi, of that there was no doubt, and it was no coincidence that his game picked up after Argentina switched to a 4-3-3 in the second half.
"I think it became clear we need another striker. It might leave us a bit more vulnerable but we are certainly more dangerous," Kun Aguero said in the Maracana mixed zone. Still, one has to look at Neymar's game against Croatia and feel that somehow the apprentice started the tournament with a bit more of sparkle than the master.
In this sense, Iran will be an interesting challenge. Not that they poses any credible threat but that they will certainly wait for the South Americans with buses, trains and airplanes parked in front of the goal, which could prove to require great patience. Nigeria's physicality will be another type of test but both games offer precious opportunities for Messi to gain some confidence and feel more at ease with his position for his country. And, of course, they should beef up his statistics.