LUSAIL, Qatar -- If Lionel Messi is to finally lift the World Cup, he is doing it the hard way. Genius can take you only so far, especially if your team is as flawed as Messi's Argentina, but the fairy-tale story can still have the perfect ending.
It might even happen with the ultimate payoff line of Cristiano Ronaldo being on the other side with Portugal (should they emerge from the side of the bracket that includes France, England and Morocco) when it does. But let's put the brakes on the fantasy, for now.
After 80 minutes of the quarterfinal against the Netherlands at Lusail Stadium, everyone watching could have been forgiven for getting carried away with the Messi narrative -- that Qatar 2022 would end with the 35-year-old getting his hands on the one major trophy he has yet to win.
Messi had produced his best performance of this World Cup -- and it was magical -- to put Lionel Scaloni's team 2-0 ahead and seemingly cruising into a semifinal against Croatia on Tuesday. The Paris Saint-Germain forward had created Nahuel Molina's first-half opening goal with a pass of sublime quality before doubling Argentina's lead from the penalty spot on 73 minutes.
The closing stages should have been on cruise control, but Wout Weghorst scored twice -- an 83rd-minute header and then by finishing off one of the best and cleverest free kicks you are likely to see, 11 minutes into stoppage time, to draw the Dutch level. And that wasn't in the script. Messi's story really shouldn't have been turned into a nightmare by a giant centre-forward who was signed by Burnley to keep them in the Premier League last season. A task he failed to manage, scoring just twice in 20 games.
Craig Burley can't believe the Netherlands pulled off such an audacious free kick in the quarter final of a World Cup.
But just as one of football's most glittering careers looked set to be denied its dream ending by a journeyman striker for a poor Dutch team, the sporting gods switched back onto Messi and Argentina's side as the Copa America champions held their nerve to win a penalty shootout, with Messi scoring the first in a 4-3 win.
It ended a bad-tempered game, with 11 Argentina bookings, two mass confrontations between both sets of players and some provocative, goading celebrations at the end by Argentina in front of their beaten opponents. But there is so much emotion and desperation in this Argentina team, maybe in Messi, so the ugly scenes in victory might just be understandable.
And when the dust settles, perhaps this World Cup needed an Argentina win, despite the negativity at the end. After all, football at the highest level should be about moments of fantasy, of images that last a lifetime, and Messi delivered one of those with the stunning reverse pass to Molina.
Prior to Messi's game-changing contribution, the Dutch were threatening to suffocate this encounter with their passive, risk-averse football. Coach Louis van Gaal has bristled at criticism of his tactical approach from the Dutch media -- one reporter told the Netherlands coach that watching his team was like "grinding teeth" -- but it had taken them to the brink of a semifinal clash with Croatia (who earlier ousted Brazil on penalties in an equally memorable match), so van Gaal cannot be criticised for attempting to get the most from his limited squad.
The World Cup quarterfinal isn't the first time Wout Weghorst has pulled his clever free-kick trick.
But just imagine a World Cup semifinal between the Netherlands and Croatia on Tuesday, with Messi watching from afar and Argentina and their incredible supporters back home, still waiting to end their 36-year wait for a third World Cup triumph. That is not what this World Cup needs. It needs the Messi factor and his ongoing pursuit of the achievement that would give him equal status with Diego Maradona in Argentine hearts.
It needs Argentina's thousands of fans to fill stadiums with their colour and noise, it needs a South American giant to chase a first World Cup since Brazil in 2002, and it doesn't need the Netherlands playing football out of an outdated manual, as Messi said after the game of "long balls to tall players."
Shaka Hislop says it's "beyond him" how the referee allowed Leandro Paredes to stay on the field after he kicked the ball at the Netherlands' dugout.
But no matter what Argentina do from this point on, Messi has at least given us perhaps the defining on-field image of Qatar 2022 with his pass to Molina. Messi's legs no longer move as quickly as his brilliant mind. You can see it at times when he shuffles away from an opponent with a swerve or feint, rather than the burst of pace he once possessed at his absolute peak.
But Messi knows his limitations and he has changed his game to overcome them. A few years ago, as he entered shooting range of goal, he would put his foot on the gas and go for it, but on this occasion, he knew that he couldn't get through a packed Dutch defence on his own. So he left midfielder Frenkie de Jong in his wake by running across the edge of the penalty area before spotting full-back Molina out of the corner of his eye and instantly released the defender with a reverse pass into the penalty area. Virgil van Dijk attempted to foul Molina just as he shot at goal, but the Liverpool defender couldn't put the Argentina off his stride.
Brb watching this pass from Messi for the rest of the day 😍🎯 pic.twitter.com/5EM4CBwktN— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 9, 2022
Messi erupted in joy with his teammates. He cannot escape the shadow of Maradona, who won the World Cup almost single-handedly in 1986. But Messi's pass was similar to that of his great predecessor against Brazil at the 1990 tournament, when Maradona held off a pack of defenders before playing a pinpoint pass for Claudio Caniggia, who scored to win the game. Check it out and compare the two visionary passes.
But while Messi's brilliance was on display with that pass, so were his determination and tenacity as Argentina toiled in extra-time and when he showed nerves of steel to take the first penalty in the shootout.
Messi might no longer be what he was, but he showed against the Dutch that he can do everything to drag Argentina to glory -- the good, the tough and the ugly. Whether it is with silk or steel, Messi is keeping his and Argentina's hopes alive. And the World Cup is so much better for it.