Messi's Final reckoning has arrived
It's now or never for Argentina star as he tries to emulate Maradona's feat in 1986
- 0-0 after extra time, Argentina win 4-2 on penalties
Lionel Messi continues to stagger along Diego Maradona's path to sporting immortality without following in his footsteps.
Maradona pulled his teammates to World Cup glory in 1986. Messi is being dragged along, clinging desperately to the coat-tails of a lucky penalty shootout victory.
Argentina's finest footballer of his generation is desperate to shake off the footnote at the bottom of his resume, but he hardly helped himself this morning (Singapore time).
On the day the Sao Paulo Stadium paid a tasteful tribute to Argentina's first football son Alfredo di Stefano, Messi fought to extricate himself from being identified with the late Real Madrid legend in football annals for all time.
He doesn't want to be the greatest player never to win a World Cup. Only he can erase the question marks that will hover over his name forever in pub conservations on who deserves inclusion in the game's exclusive pantheon.
Based on his performance against Holland, Messi can't rub out the asterisk just yet.
He's won every trophy club football can offer. Only the international podium eludes him. If he adds the final piece in his masterpiece, he must be considered the greatest of all time.
There is no comeback to global supremacy; a World Cup winner's medal outshines any counter-argument, right?
That now depends entirely on Messi's influence against Germany at the Maracana on Monday morning. He didn't carry his teammates through the semi-final. They carried him.
Apart from his converted penalty in the shootout, Messi's contribution left no imprint on the damp squib of a match. With a game bogged down in midfield by tactical conservatism, Messi cut himself adrift, consciously removing the ties that bound him to the common fray, as if all that petty squabbling and poor passing around the centre circle was beneath him.
He missed the injured Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero and his childhood friend Fernando Gago tidying up behind him, so he went missing.
The 26-year-old tiptoed away from the stifling stalemate and stationed himself further afield, usually through the middle, sometimes over to the right, as he waited for an invitation to join an artistic party that was never going to come.
Messi's plodding around the contest's periphery served only to reinforce the perception that he does not dominate in dour international games in the flamboyant way popularised by his spiritual predecessor.
Whether it was belittling the Belgians, offering the hand of God or delivering the goal of God, Maradona's omnipresence always rescued teammates struggling to tread water. With boyish enthusiasm, he plunged into the murkiest conditions to salvage situations. He was Argentina's patron saint of lost causes.
Messi has flirted with the role in this tournament, particularly against Iran and Belgium, but hasn't assumed full-time responsibilities.
Daley Blind certainly went to work on him on Argentina's right side and Bruno Indi Martins introduced Argentina's No. 10 to his studs on so many occasions, the Dutch defender was substituted to save himself from further acts of self-destruction.
Ron Vlaar also demonstrated how a World Cup semi-final, rather than a perennial relegation battle with Aston Villa, can work wonders for self-confidence, sneaking off with Holland's Man-of-the-Match honours and leaving his mark on Messi.
But the little genius has been a marked man ever since he finished top scorer and won the Fifa Under-20 World Cup in 2005. Being booted into the byeline is the sincerest form of flattery and Holland's treatment was not particularly excessive; no Karate Kid-style kicks to the chest from Nigel de Jong and company this time.
And still, Messi laboured.
He has offered tantalising, teasing glimpses of his incomparable gifts - that pass to di Maria, the last-minute drop of the shoulder and curled finish against Iran - but not enough to dominate games for his country or get that cumbersome Maradona-shaped monkey off his back.
Until this morning, he kept replaying the same exciting trailer, a sneak peek of an unforgettable blockbuster that was coming to all our screens at any moment.
Against Holland, he forgot to even play the trailer. Lady Luck bailed him out.
She continues to indulge his genius, clearing having a soft spot for wayward mavericks. We all do.
But the Germans will not be so sympathetic. As they proved against Brazil, they are not here to pander to romantic narratives. Messi's legacy is not their problem.
If he doesn't rediscover his creative muse in the Maracana, even Lady Luck won't be able to save him.
TNP GRAPHICS: TEOH YI CHIE
I taught Romero to stop penalties, so that hurts.
— Holland coach Louis van Gaal, who had worked with Sergio Romero during the Argentina goalkeeper’s four-year stint at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar