Argentina do enough to beat Bosnia
The celebration was long and loud. "Look at how much that meant to him," one Argentine TV commentator said after the match. "There's almost anger in that scream!" He was talking, of course, about Lionel Messi letting it all out after that explosive run and finish that ended up deciding Argentina's first World Cup match of 2014.
It would be easy to view the celebration in just the context of that match, which had been hitherto frustrating for Argentina, even if their second goal had perhaps become inevitable as the second half developed. After a first-half display that absolutely no one would argue was anything close to good enough, there was a major change in system, and little by little, Argentina started playing as they can, until the breakthrough came.
But the celebration was not, one suspects, purely to do with the importance of that goal in that match. Before Sunday, Messi had one World Cup finals goal to his name; it came in the 6-0 tonking of Serbia and Montenegro back in 2006 and was scored eight years ago Monday. During the 2010 tournament, he was foiled on occasion by poor finishes and, against Nigeria, an inspired goalkeeping performance from Vincent Enyeama, and he came away without a goal. One day short of eight years since his first World Cup goal, Messi finally got his second.
If Messi goes on to have a fine tournament, it will be easy to look back at this goal as the catalyst. In the first half, well shackled by the Bosnia-Herzegovina defence and with his strike partner, Sergio Aguero, isolated in a 5-3-2 formation -- one that Argentina have used before but clearly weren't happy with on Sunday in Rio -- Messi couldn't do much. He didn't get on the ball enough, and when he did, he lost it. He looked like a man under ... well, frankly, under the pressure he was under. It's perhaps a mark of his self-confidence that he doesn't play like that more often.
The halftime changes transformed the match. When I saw Gonzalo Higuain and Fernando Gago hadn't been named starters, I assumed neither were fully fit. That they both came on at the break suggests that might not have been the case, though perhaps Alejandro Sabella didn't feel either of them were fully up to 90 minutes.
Whatever the reason, the changes had dual effects, both of which were based around Messi. Higuain's introduction to the attack gave Argentina a focal point and opened space for Messi and Aguero, while Gago (replacing Maxi Rodriguez in midfield) played closer to Javier Mascherano and made their middle tougher to get through than in the first half. It also introduced Gago's passing into the mix -- important because no one gets the ball to Messi quite as well as Gago.
The changes also helped Mascherano, of course, who'd looked all alone in midfield at times during Bosnian attacks in the first half. The only Argentine who really did himself justice right though the game was goalkeeper Sergio Romero; although, given that he unfortunately let the ball through his legs for the late consolation goal, he can't be praised wholeheartedly. Still, some decent saves in both halves were the best comfort his teammates had at the break.
The other big positive -- apart from the three points -- is that Sabella realised his plan wasn't working and was able to make the changes to get a much better showing out of his team in the second half. In their postmatch interviews, none of the players was pretending the first half had been acceptable, yet the win is theirs and Messi might just have a psychologically important goal. For now, Argentina will take that.