It is hard enough to take on the world’s best player and the world’s No. 1 team at the best of times. But when Lionel Messi gets taken by one of his special moods and decides, “Today, I’ll be brilliant,” stopping him and Argentina becomes nigh impossible.
Tuesday was one of Messi’s nights, and the USA had no answer, falling 4-0 in a Copa America semifinal that was just as convincing as it sounds.
No answer? Such was the difference in pace that the Americans barely had time to hear the question, finding the fleetfootedness and swift ball movement of Argentina’s passing game far too much to handle.
Messi, as ever, was the architect of it all. He is the finest soccer player on the planet, the best of this generation,and one of the greatest in history for a multitude of reasons, and he displayed them all at NRG Stadium.
“We had far too much respect (for Argentina),” USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “They smell that, they feel it. And they start to play their game with all the quality that they have.
“After the early goal probably the players could feel it that in every position on the field they were just better than we are.”
His first contribution was as a creator, and it set the tone for what would be a long and exhausting night for the USA. Sometimes with Messi it is the goals, the powerful strikes that find the back of the net or the mazy runs that leave the field littered with prone defenders.
Those are the things that dominate the highlight reels, understandably so. But so often it is touches of the most intricately delicate perfection that form his most telling contributions.
The latter happened just three minutes in, from a short corner that the Americans might have figured to have under control. The ball squeezed loose to Messi on the edge of the area, just the kind of zone from where the little magician likes to dance his way through the defense.
Except that this time he didn’t, instead clipping a pinpoint chip over a cluster of defenders, where Ezequiel Lavezzi was waiting to latch on to it with his head and loop the ball over goalkeeper Brad Guzan for the opening score.
Next it was time for Messi to finish the task himself. Midway through the first half, he slid past Kyle Beckerman and left Chris Wondolowski no choice but to haul him to the ground. Referee Enrique Caceres ruled for the free kick to be taken several yards closer to goal than the spot of the foul, a fact that would infuriate U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann so much that he stomped onto the field to remonstrate with the official at halftime.
Messi wasn’t flustered, stepping up to curl a beautifully crafted free kick from 25 yards out, right into Guzan’s top corner. It took his career tally of international goals to 55, making him Argentina’s all-time top scorer.
There is no point apportioning blame. You could say Beckerman should have kept his feet or Wondolowski shouldn’t have given away the free kick and Guzan should have saved a strike that was on his side of the goal.
Forget that, just enjoy the genius.
U.S. captain Michael Bradley said before the game that the American media talks about Messi too much. In all reality, it might not be enough. While the crowd might have been 65% pro-American, Messi got the biggest cheer of the night. No one who sees him play forgets it.
This was a month in which we lost two sporting legends, and on occasions like this it makes you appreciate those still competing even more. Not for the flashy stuff but for all the parts that you don’t see. Like how Messi made a run after 50 minutes that set up Argentina’s third goal and abolished any slight thought of a comeback.
Messi sprinted toward the penalty area, knowing it was a dummy run, taking men away from Gonzalo Higuain. Lavezzi’s ball into the box found Higuain in space, and the forward converted at the second attempt. It won’t go down as an assist, but you can take it as proof that Messi cares more about team success than his own stat line.
With four minutes to go, the job was completed. Messi could have taken the ball all the way and borne down on Guzan’s goal; instead he glanced Higuain in the corner of his eye and slotted it sideways. Higuain made no mistake for the fourth goal and sent Argentina into the final with a flourish.
The Argentines will take some stopping, and the a long wait — the nation has not won a major tournament in 23 years — soon might be over.
For the USA, it was one of those shoulder-shrugging moments. Klinsmann’s men had neither the firepower nor the depth to challenge the team that reached the 2014 World Cup final.
Nevertheless, the past fortnight has provided a remarkable turnaround for the Americans and has, in some ways, altered the face of the program heading into the next phase of World Cup qualifying.
No longer is Klinsmann’s head on the block — far from it. Whereas an early exit in the Copa America likely would have cost him his job, this run through to the semifinals has instead instilled some optimism that progress is being made.
On this night though, it wasn’t enough. The gap to the top of the world tree is still a gulf. America doesn’t have a Messi or anyone like him. But in that sense, it is certainly not alone.