Messi thriving under pressure
A familiar routine: place the ball, measure the distance to goal; concentrate, because you need to get this right in one attempt, on a big stage; send the free kick arrowing towards the top corner. Saved. Close, but not quite.
Minutes later, another free kick from almost the same spot on the pitch. You've calibrated your aim now. Place the ball, measure the distance to goal; concentrate and send a screaming free kick curling into the top corner from well outside the box.
It sounds so easy put like that, doesn't it? But add in the nerves of a watching crowd of 51,000 and millions more on television, and the pressure of once again being the main attacker in a side struggling for inspiration going forward in a World Cup, and it sounds rather less simple.
It's yet another mark of Lionel Messi's quality that many spectators must have wondered whether Vincent Enyeama would manage to pull off another fine save from his second free kick; we all knew the ball would be going in almost exactly the same place again, pressure or no pressure.
And that's been the mark of Messi so far in this World Cup. Even he hasn't always played brilliantly -- though it was hard to fault his performance on Wednesday in the 3-2 victory over Nigeria -- but under pressure, he's stepped up.
He's scored four goals from three group-stage matches, all in pressure situations: with a slim lead after a poor first-half team performance against Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the dying seconds with the game seemingly drawn against Iran and on Wednesday against Nigeria in the knowledge that an improvement in attack was a must.
What's more, three of those goals (the first against Nigeria being the odd one out) have been, by the standards of almost any other player on the planet, sensational. When Messi does it, they look almost ordinary. So accustomed are we to his brilliance.
And yet, the fact remains that Argentina's attack as a whole hasn't functioned properly yet. Gonzalo Higuaín looked more mobile against Nigeria, but he was improving from a very low base, and those who suggested he might be a decent each-way bet for top scorer must be feeling very silly at the moment (writes Kelly, hoping no one will decide to search for his own pre-tournament tips ).
Sergio Aguero, carted off injured during the first half here, has been downright woeful.
Angel Di María is starting to improve, though, and impressed against Nigeria; on Wednesday, he'd clearly been told to shoot on sight during the first half, and it was his first such attempt which bounced -- twice -- off the post after evading Enyeama's grasp and ricocheted out to allow Messi to open the scoring.
Alejandro Sabella said after the match that he'd seen 'some improvements' in Argentina's attacking play. With injury having disrupted Aguero's and Higuaín's preparations, the hope is that it's just a matter of time before they play themselves into form. To that end, they'll be hoping Aguero's knock is nothing serious and that he's available for Tuesday's second-round match against Switzerland.
For now, though, Sabella and Argentina can content themselves with the knowledge that there's one attacker, at least, who they know they can rely on. If Messi can play this well under this much pressure without his teammates being fully on song, it can surely be only a good sign when they finally click.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been ESPN FC's South America correspondent since 2008. He also writes for When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard (both U.K.) and Howler (U.S.) and previews Argentine Primera Division matches for Hong Kong Jockey Club. He is the producer of Hand Of Pod, the Internet's finest (OK, only) English-language Argentine football podcast and tweets as @HEGS_com.