Messi exorcises Argentina’s penalty demons

Lionel Messi is not the kind of player to be beset by self-doubt. As the Argentinian ace readied himself to take a vital penalty against Chile keeper Claudio Bravo on Thursday evening, however, it would have been entirely understandable if his mind had flashed back to the two recent Copa America finals between the countries, both of which the Chileans won in penalty shootouts.

The No10 missed in the second of those shootouts, at USA 2016, firing the ball over the bar and deciding after the game to retire from international football, albeit temporarily. Yet Messi banished memories of that errant effort, coolly driving the ball to Bravo’s left and inside the post to help La Albiceleste register a crucial win in their quest to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

There were 16 minutes on the clock at the Monumental when Chile’s Jose Fuenzalida brought down the surging Angel Di Maria in the box. A roar went up in the stands to greet the award of the penalty, though silence quickly descended on the stadium. Excited at the prospect of the spot-kick, the home fans were also gripped by fear, the fear of yet another penalty being spurned against Chile, a fear heightened by the fact that Sergio Aguero had missed the only penalty the Argentinians had been awarded since that final in the States last year, in the 1-0 defeat to Paraguay last October.

I do not think the team is Messi-dependent.

If there were any doubts in Messi’s head, he did not show them, putting the ball past Bravo in exactly the same way as he had done in the shootout that settled the 2015 Copa America final.

What was different on this occasion was the outcome of the match, with Argentina going on to celebrate a vital win that moved them up from the play-off spot in the South American qualifying competition and into third. In the process, the Argentinians bumped La Roja down to sixth and out of the qualification places altogether.

Messi’s value to his side cannot be underestimated. The No10 has now scored three of Argentina’s five goals in the three wins they have registered since Edgardo Bauza took over as coach last September. Messi it was who got the only goal against Uruguay that month. Messi it was who scored the opener in the 3-0 defeat of Colombia in November (the other goals coming from Lucas Pratto and Di Maria). And Messi it was who put Chile to the sword on Thursday.

Bauza has denied that his captain's importance to the team should be considered cause for concern. "I do not think the team is Messi-dependent,"he said after last night's win. "For me, the team played a great game that contained a great team like Chile. We won against a great rival."

His coach may downplay Messi's importance but, in the Barcelona star's absence, Argentina lost on that visit to Paraguay and could only draw with Peru and Venezuela.  The only defeat Messi has figured in during Bauza’s reign came in last November’s clásico against a Brazil side featuring his club-mate Neymar, a defeat that can perhaps be explained by the fact that he failed to get on the scoresheet.

The Argentinian icon has now scored 18 goals in World Cup qualifying matches, the first of them coming against Venezuela in October 2007. With the exception of the meeting with Colombia that same year, his side has won every qualifier in which he has found the net, the latest being the one in which he single-handedly exorcised the ghosts of Copa America shootouts past.