The joke going around before the United States faced Argentina in the Copa América semifinals last night was that a third of the fans in Houston were there to support the hosts, a third for Argentina, and a third for Lionel Messi. To judge from the broadcast, the joke might not have gone far enough. There were Messi jerseys, Messi signs, even albiceleste flags with Messi’s airbrushed face rippling in the breeze. Only the most pious American fans pretended their guys had any chance against an Argentina side that’s playing like the best in the world, led by the best player in the world. Most just wanted to witness greatness.
Boy, did they witness it. It was well into the second half before Messi lost a ball. It took nearly that long for the Americans to figure out how to even slow him down. He finished the match—which Argentina won in a walk, 4-0—with a goal, two assists, a key pass, several more chances created, and 88% passing accuracy, but as usual the stats fail to measure the full impact of Messi’s presence. Even by his own impossible standards, this was a performance to remember.
He started fast. Three minutes into the game, Esquiel Lavezzi bundled a short corner toward Messi at the top of the box, where he stood alone in a ridiculous amount of space. As the American defenders charged forward in confusion, like they’d never seen an FC Barcelona game tape that might suggest where the ball was likely to go next, Lavezzi cut back past them toward the left corner of the six-yard box, where Neymar makes a living gobbling peaches from Messi’s silver platter. Sure enough, a single left-footed touch sprung the ball high over the defense to an open Lavezzi—a little too high, it appeared, until Brad Guzan charged halfway out of goal and found himself stranded off his line. As Lavezzi pooched a header gently over Guzan into the net, it was easy to imagine Messi had planned the whole thing, high chip, befuddled keeper, and all.
If the first goal was a little lucky, the second showed how much of a sure thing Messi’s become. Each season, it seems, he works to elevate some new aspect of his game from merely excellent to the best in the world. This is the year of free kicks. For years opponents have known that the safest thing to do when Messi dribbles toward their goal at speed is to stop him by any means necessary—dirty tackles, rugby tackles, full-on Ultimate Fighting Championship takedowns—and write off the yellow as a cost of doing business. Not any more. Allowing Messi a spot kick anywhere in the final third these days is like jumping in a river to escape the rain.
You’ve seen the play by now. It started with a professional foul by Chris Wondolowski, reaching an arm across Messi’s chest and spinning him to the ground slightly to the left side of the goal about thirty yards out. As the teams set up for the free kick, Guzan and his wall cheated just far enough to their left that it looked like Messi could pretty easily curl the ball around Michael Bradley and inside the near post. Instead he did it the hard way. He fired across the goal, the ball curving the wrong way, into the right corner, nicking the underside of the crossbar just inches from the upper ninety. Guzan was caught off guard, but recovered in time to stretch a glove almost all the way to the corner. Only a perfect shot could have scored—but this shot was perfect, and Guzan’s almost wasn’t good enough. In a year of astonishing Messi free kicks, this was hands down the best.
As you might expect from an Argentine attack missing Sergio Agüero and, following a second-half spill over the advertising hoardings that broke his elbow, Lavezzi as well, some of Messi’s best moves were wasted—a common problem when he plays with his international teammates. Javier Mascherano, of all people, squandered one good look when he somehow found himself receiving a layoff in front of goal as a makeshift right winger. That one’s forgivable. Worse was Érik Lamela’s ugly second-half shot from the wing when he should have looked up to Messi streaking wide open toward the penalty spot, hoping to finish a give-and-go in classic Barça style. It was the kind of boneheaded selfishness from an Argentina forward that’s kept the team from taking full advantage of Messi for most of his senior career.
Messi, on the other hand, was his usual selfless self—and with great vision, too:
There are signs that after years of stubbornness, Argentina has recognized that it ought to organize its play around Messi rather than shoehorning him into a limited role. Beginning under Alejandro Sabella during the 2014 World Cup cycle, Messi’s seen more freedom to play however and wherever he wants—a golden rule at Barça since Pep Guardiola’s early days. Though Tata Martino has taken plenty of flak for his managerial tenure in Argentina, as he did in Barcelona, he’s been smart enough in both jobs to let Messi be Messi. In this tournament, that’s meant deploying him on the right wing with license to drift into the ten spot, orchestrate from midfield, or drop all the way back to start the attack with a salida lavolpiana when he wants.
The results are telling. Argentina’s now 5-0 in the Copa, with a combined scoreline of 18-2. On Sunday they’ll face Chile in a rematch of last year’s Copa final, which Argentina lost in heartbreaking fashion on penalty kicks. This year the teams have already met in group stage. Messi, recovering from an injury, watched from the bench as Argentina won 2-1. Imagine how the rematch will go with him playing like this.