Qatar December 04, 2022: On the occasion of Lionel Messi’s 1,000th game let us mark it with a moment.Let us mark it with a dissection as forensic as the way he scored. Not that the actual moment was the goal itself. The ‘moment’ led to it, helping to create what was Messi’s first-half goal, remarkably his first in a knock-out tie at a World Cup, in what is his fifth tournament.
Instead, the moment was what helped force it, with Messi chasing down the Australian left-back – and Dundee United defender – Aziz Behich beside the touchline.
Behich did not like Messi harrying him, snapping at him, closing him down – yes, that is exactly what he was doing and it did indeed look unusual – and he forced him into a mistake, running the ball out of play. Behich turned and grabbed hold of Messi’s shirt, pushing and shoving and losing control.
Behich was angry, his blood was up and seconds later he needlessly conceded the free-kick from the throw-in that eventually led to Australia falling behind.
Then we had the Messi magic. But, interestingly, it stemmed from his own annoyance; his own frustration; his own sense that this last-16 tie was not going to plan. And Behich annoyed him as much as he had annoyed Behich, a 31-year-old journeyman playing in Scotland.
Messi took the free-kick, whipping it in dangerously, with Harry Souttar heading the ball out to Papa Gómez who flicked it with the outside of his right boot back to Messi. He killed it stone dead. One touch. Boof. Now Argentina were cooking. That was a warning sign Australia failed to heed. The switch had been flicked; the light had been lit. It was Messi time.
In an instant he dropped a shoulder – see you later – as Riley McGree rushed towards him and he swept the ball infield to Alexis Mac Allister, who received it centrally, just outside the penalty area.
Messi was on the move, moving quicker than he had done all game. Not quite rolling back the years but this was vintage Messi now; doing what he has done so many times before, leaving everyone watching in raptures no matter how often he does it.
So, when Mac Allister picked out Nicolás Otamendi the centre-half did the right thing. He controlled it, yes, but he then got out of the way as Messi took over. One touch. Space created and in a blur the ball was in the net.
Messi curled it low, through the legs of Souttar, beyond the grasp of Mat Ryan and Argentina were in front. It was all about accuracy and precision, little to do with power.
Messi had his goal. He was driving this Argentina on. His Last Dance was not over. As he walked off at half-time there was a little salute, a fist raised, and history had been made.
All eyes were on him. All eyes are always on him. But what a setting, a World Cup, an ‘all-or-bust’ tie, to mark his 1,000 game – 18 years and 48 days after his first appearance for Barcelona.
It was his 169th cap for Argentina, for whom he has now scored 94 times, after making 778 appearances for Barcelona and 53 for Paris St-Germain.
In all, there have been 789 goals and this felt like one of the most precious for the 35-year-old, who has already signalled that this will be his last attempt at finally winning the World Cup.
Messi was at his dazzling best as Argentina beat Australia to set up a mouth-watering quarter-final tie with the Dutch CREDIT: Pavel Golovkin/AP
It was his ninth World Cup goal, one ahead of Diego Maradona, one behind Gabriel Batistuta but its real significance was because he had never scored beyond the group stages before which, given who he is and who he plays for, is a stunning statistic (incredibly Cristiano Ronaldo has not done so either). There had previously been 23 efforts at goal, stretching back to 2006, without a goal. Now Messi has it.
Does it feel like destiny? Argentina started this tournament by suffering its greatest shock, losing to Saudi Arabia despite Messi giving them the lead from a penalty. They were nervy and edgy against Mexico when he scored again to help drag them through and although he missed another penalty, against Poland, they were far better and less dependent on him.
They are growing. It is what tournament winners do. Messi has played his 1,000th game and scored and when Argentina scored their second he was energised. There was a mesmeric dribble from the half-way line, then another as defenders desperately tried to stop him. More magic. “Messi, Messi,” rang around the stadium. “Vamos Argentina,” they sang. Vamos Messi. His 1,000th appearance was memorable. But it is the 1,003rd that he will be dreaming of – and the prospect of that being played at the final on December 18.