Oh, Aziz. You’ve done it now. The second it happened, Argentina’s players knew there was only one way this was going to end. Anyone who has watched Lionel Messi a lot did, and there has been a lot of him to watch. By the time they left the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, scene of his 1,000th game, his teammate Alexis Mac Allister was laughing about it, the apparent inevitability of it all. Australia had picked the wrong guy: that’s not a knife, this is a knife.
There were 10 minutes to go until half-time, there had been little sign of a breakthrough, and Messi had given the ball away the last two times he had it, when he and Aziz Behich clashed out on the right touchline. The Dundee United player barged him, grabbed his shirt and had a word or five. Shortly after he also gave away a free-kick, for a foul on Alejandro Gómez. Messi took the free-kick, fast. Within seconds, Argentina had the lead and their captain had scored his 789th career goal – seven hundred and eighty nine – and his first in a World Cup knockout.
Heading across from the touchline, Messi had rolled it towards Mac Allister, turned and continued to the area. “I always try to pass to him, try to make sure the ball gets to him because if he has it everything’s much easier,” the midfielder said, three hours later, but this time was different. Yet if one of those rare moments when he wasn’t looking for Messi, he still found him, like the ball has a will of its own. And, let’s face it, whose feet would you rather the ball fell at?
“The pass was for Otamendi, but it came to Messi, which was a bit of a surprise,” Mac Allister admitted, mission accomplished if accidentally. Otamendi lost control – “I told Leo it was an assist,” he joked later – but Messi rescued it, took a touch and then played another pass, this time into the net. The shot went through the legs of Stoke’s Harry Souttar – alas, it was neither wet nor Wednesday – and beyond the dive of Matty Ryan. It was Argentina’s first shot on target, and the first time he had been in the area.
“It’s probably the only chance I’ll ever get to share the pitch with arguably the greatest to ever do it [and] it’s a bit surreal, a moment to reflect on at the end: to look back and say you got to compete with one of the greatest,” Australia’s Jackson Irvine said. “What stands out is his understanding of the game, how he picks and chooses his moments to come to life. And when he does he’s hard to stop. We controlled him so well for most of the first half, but it’s that one little moment, that one half-meter you give him. We’ve seen it hundreds of times: so ruthless, so clinical, and ultimately that was the difference.”
There was just one doubt. Had Messi chosen that moment himself? Or had Behich – who, it should be said, almost scored the goal of the World Cup when for a moment he was more Messi than Messi – accidentally chose it for him? A rule going back years reads: don’t piss off “La Pulga”. Behich had done that, waking something in him, the animal within, and payback was swift. After all, when it was later suggested that the first thought Argentina’s players had when they saw the foul was “oh, you fool”, that they could see it coming, Mac Allister laughed. “For sure, for sure,” he replied.
“When those things happen, it brings out the fire he has inside, the personality he has, and that makes him even greater than he is,” the Brighton midfielder said. “He always tries to give his best but those moments work for him, they’re useful: he plays even better, and in games like this he’s even greater yet. He has those touches that appear from nowhere and win you the game.”
“He is the most important player we have: he knows that, he helps us a lot and we are proud to have him,” Mac Allister said. “I enjoy playing with him, it makes me happy: for me he’s the best player in the history of the world.”
Not everyone agrees back home. Mac Allister’s father, Carlos “Colorado” Mac Allister played just three times for Argentina, his international career lasting less than a month and taking in two matches against Australia in the playoff that took them to the 1994 World Cup and a friendly against Germany wedged in the middle. At least he can, and does, always say that his captain then was Argentina’s other great No 10, Diego Maradona. His son’s captain is the man trying to emulate him.
“We always have that argument,” Mac Allister junior said. “For my dad, Maradona was very important, not just in his career but in his personal life and he is very grateful. For me, it’s a source of pride to be at Leo’s side and play with him. For me obviously he’s the best in history. We argue: he says Maradona is the best ever; I said it’s Messi. It’s a discussion I don’t think will ever end.”