Chaos reigns but stars align for Lionel Messi and Argentina on another magical night

South Americans were 2-0 and coasting before two Wout Weghorst goals sent the game to extra-time and penalties

Argentina win 4-3 on penalties

Argentina and Messi, it is in the stars.

Up stepped Virgil van Dijk, penalty one in the shoot-out. The Liverpool and Dutch captain is the sort of man anyone would pray for in an emergency. His well-struck effort was wonderfully denied by Emiliano Martinez.

Leo Messi next, a stutter step sending big Andries Noppert the wrong way. The noise inside Lusail would burst your eardrums.


Chaos, everywhere.

Martinez was only getting warmed up, a sensational save from Steven Berghuis, edged Argentina towards a World Cup semi-final they were supposed to have secured a good hour ago.

It came down to Lautaro Martinez, coming off the bench in extra-time, missing two gimmies to win it, before curling the low decisive penalty passed Noppert to send Argentina into the last four where they will face Croatia next Tuesday back inside the Lusail edifice.

Wout Weghorst is the very definition of a journeyman pro. Before this near total meltdown by Argentina, the obscenely long Beşiktaş striker, on loan from Burnley, had three goals in 18 caps for the Netherlands.

When this World Cup quarter-final was bundled into extra-time, skirmishes breaking out everywhere, the 30-year-old had raised that total to five goals in 19 caps, brilliantly using his nine-inch height advantage over Manchester Untied centre half Lisandro Martínez to half the deficit before all hell broke loose in the 11th minute of injury-time.

The plan was to play 10.

Argentina were out the gate, in total control of the nation that invented Total Football, until the much maligned Total Longball tactics by that old fox Louis van Gaal forced Messi to start all over again.

It might still prove costly for Messi, who swallowed a yellow card for dissent seconds after the equaliser, which came when referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz gave a free-kick for German Pezzella needlessly pushing Weghorst on the edge of the Argentina box

Teun Koopmeiners wound up a piledriver, only to thread a lovely ball through to the journey man. Weghorst was sprinting away to the corner flag before the La Albiceleste ultras realised what had happened.

Pandemonium turned into silence and 30 more minutes of football when Lautaro Martinez had his chances. He delivered in the end.

Argentina had been cruising, their army of fans and media giggling in delight when Brazil were caught by Croatia in the most humiliating circumstance imaginable a few hours earlier in Education City. Neymar and the dancing pigeons are out, beaten 4-2 on penalties.

Argentina survive, barely.

The story was set. Here was another magical Messi night, as he created the first and scored the second to drive the two-time champions towards a third title.

Easy story to tell, right?

The first, calm-inducing goal of the night came after 35 minutes. It was a Messi assist reminiscent of Diego Maradona’s only creative moment during the 1990 World Cup, when he sidled up field to gift Claudio Caniggia enough space to eliminate Brazil.

It was a hunter’s goal by World Cup contenders, hatched in the video room. The ruse was registered early and all tournament in fact. Messi loves drawing players towards him before dinking the ball out left where Marcos Acuña can have a rattle.

The flow of the game kept moving that way. It was as how Messi hoped the night would unfold.

The Maradona ball was coming. Now the Messi ball.

Philipp Lahm, the victorious German captain when Messi dragged Argentina to the 2014 World Cup final, calls the industry of Rodigo De Paul and Alex Mac Allister an “unconditional intensity” in his brilliant Guardian column. “Their plan,” Lahm writes, “[is] to constantly win the ball and defend forward. It’s a defensive idea, but designed to be proactive.

“In 2014, when they lost to us in the Maracanã final, his team-mates seemed to be waiting for him to solve everything on his own. In 2022, they are playing for him and he is biding his time.”

The fourth time Messi sidled right to left an orange blur moved with him. Not even Van Dijk noticed the danger, as Nahuel Molina crept on to Nathan Aké’s shoulder, Van Dijk turning to get a last-gasp nudge before Molina finished the gift.

They play for Messi now, and 2022 is how the past four World Cup should have gone, but they really do play for him, so much so that Mac Allister stalled a perfectly fast-paced three on three counterattack to wait the man they once called la pulga.

The flea no more, when Van Dijk bumped him to ground on 63 minutes, just outside the Dutch box, he rose to skim a wicked free-kick off the roof of Noppert’s net. The goalkeeper was beaten.

It needed to drop.

The second goal was supposed to confirm total dominance. Acuña was destroying Denzel Dumfries down the left but the Inter Milan wing back conceded a sloppy penalty.

Van Dijk was annoyed with Spanish referee Mateu Lahoz, but there was not a peep out of Mr VAR Hernandez-Alejandro.

Messi atoned for the penalty miss against Poland in that vital group match, when Tomasz Szczęsny saved well to his left, burying the ball right and giving Noppert no hope.

That seemed to be that but Argentina under Lionel Scaloni, with an elderly Messi, remain a flawed project. But what a sensational occasion. The dream lives on.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent