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Leonard Thomas
Sunday, Jul 13, 2014

Sports

Will the real Messi please stand up?

The New Paper | Leonard Thomas | Sunday, Jul 13, 2014

One of the most influential players of this World Cup is in the final on Monday morning (Singapore time).

Toni Kroos became a world name only when he was linked with Manchester United last season, but the midfield star of Germany has shown why he is now one of the best in the world by playing a leading role in his nation's march to the 2014 showpiece in Rio de Janeiro.

Across him at the Maracana Stadium will be the man recognised as the world's best footballer today.

Although everyone is still waiting for the real Lionel Messi to show up on football's grandest stage of all.

The roar that rose around the Arena Corinthians when his name was announced in Argentina's starting line-up for the semi-final against Holland yesterday morning was like a rolling thunderclap.

But, once again, Messi failed to respond for his adoring hordes when Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir blew the whistle to kick off proceedings.

Right through the 90 minutes and extra time, there seemed little urgency in his play.

There was an air of expectancy all around the stadium where he faced up to a Dutch wall in an ideal position for a left-footed free-kick, but his effort routinely nestled in Jasper Cillessen's arms.

When he did find the ball in the Dutch half, he was usually on the left and inevitably cut in, always beating the first man but consistently then running into an Oranje body called Nigel de Jong or Ron Vlaar.

It was predictable stuff.

Midway through the second half, I was struck at the sight of Messi walking aimlessly upfield as his teammates battled to keep out the always-busy Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder.

This was a world away from the Messi of Barcelona, ravenous for the ball, full of joyous balletic movement, vein-twisting runs and goals from all angles.

Argentinians erupted when he converted his penalty, but he will have to do so much more if they are to do the same against the Germans.

Sitting in the stands watching on Monday will be Diego Maradona, the Argentine wizard Messi is most associated with.

The man so many regard as the world's greatest football sorcerer has already called for Argentina to rely less on Messi. Maybe Maradona knows the burden is too much.

Just maybe the comparisons with his countryman are getting to the 27-year-old Barcelona star.

WEIGHED DOWN

And the weight of expectation is stifling Messi's ability to play with joy here.

For most of the game, he cut a listless figure on the grass, walking for much of the time, seeking out the ball only on occasion and never truly threatening the Holland defence.

Louis van Gaal's tactical plan to stifle Messi was made easier with the absence of Argentina's best player of the tournament in Angel di Maria and the struggles with fitness of Sergio Aguero.

Germany's Joachim Loew won't have that luxury.

Loew is a student of the game.

He will know that just like Maradona, Messi can inspire victory with one burst of movement or swing of his left foot.

Loew would have noted how the Dutch still needed gang defending to keep Argentina's captain quiet. Messi has scored four times in Brazil and is only two behind Colombia's James Rodriguez in the race for the Golden Boot.

But all his goals came in the opening round against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. He has been quiet in three matches since, against resilient and talented outfits.

As the clock winds down to the final, he will be reminded constantly of the mini-drought and the fact he has not taken hold of this tournament like the great Maradona did in Mexico 28 years ago.

Despite Maradona's protests, the burden on Messi has become even heavier, as they prepare to go up against a remorseless German machine which will be brimming with confidence after the massacre at Belo Horizonte.

Argentina fans will turn the Maracana into a home ground on Monday and do their best to play the 12th man.

That rolling thunderclap which will greet Messi's name just before kick-off will be even louder, in the hope that their No. 10 can inspire Argentina to overcome Kroos and the rest of Loew's troops.

This is possibly his last chance of glory at the World Cup.

Messi will have to unshackle himself and be at his most influential if he is to emulate his predecessor and lift the trophy.

Even Maradona cannot boast doing so on Brazil's, and football's, most sacred ground.


This article was first published on July 11, 2014.
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