Messi gets his groove back

COMMENT: Just as the critics were finding their voices, the Barcelona superstar reminded everyone of his brilliance with a well taken goal in Argentina's Group F opener
By Paul Macdonald at the Estadio Maracana

The flashbulbs burst. The Argentina fans chanted with such gusto and energy that it was befitting of the occasion: World Cup football's return to the Maracana. But for a while, it was all a bit sterile.

Then the man that everyone came to see put his mark on this tournament. Lionel Messi is here. His stunning goal in the 2-1 win over Bosnia & Herzegovina, exchanging passes with Gonzalo Higuain before swerving through challenges and curling into the corner, is just his second at a World Cup. And it may well be one of his best after the final reckoning.

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This was, of course, his big build-up. Messi at the Maracana - that's where iconic football moments are made.  And for a long time it was weighing not only on his mind but on that of the team. He was statistically the worst player on the pitch in the first half, losing possession 15 times.

But coach Alejandro Sabella made a tactical change, and the shackles were removed. A different player emerged.

Messi and strike partner Sergio Aguero were thrown together in an unconvincing 5-3-2 formation from the start by Sabella, forced upon him due to injury concerns over Higuain and Fernando Gago. The set-up wasn't conducive to incisive attacking football. Aguero completed six passes in the entire first half, while Messi looked disinterested in finding the space necessary so deep in Bosnian territory.

But Sabella has unquestionably unlocked Messi's ability at national team level like no other coach has, and he resorted to the formation that worked so well for him, and his superstar, during qualification.

The resulting 4-3-3 with Messi drifting off the front instantly rejuvenated a team that had previously looked stale. Messi was then collecting the ball facing the goal rather than with his back to it and had able runners in Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Higuain.

This was, of course, by no means a vintage Messi display. Passes still went astray and there's still much room for improvement in his performance and that of the entire unit. But the skill and poise shown in that goal, and his coach's decision after just 45 minutes to discard the tactic he had been operating with, are both significant. He was running, linking, jinking, tackling. A proverbial performance of two halves.

There is work to do yet. Bosnia & Herzegovina showed ambition in the last 15 minutes and Vedad Ibisevic's goal meant more pressure on the scoreline than there ought to have been. But the match will be remembered for one moment and Argentina's boisterous fans hope their hero can enjoy a World Cup that his talent, and ultimately legacy, deserves.

With Sabella's tweaks and Messi's poise and determination returning, Argentina are edging closer to justifying their tag as potential winners.