Why Lionel Messi is better than ever

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against the Netherlands in their World Cup quarter-final match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against the Netherlands in their World Cup quarter-final match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

LUSELL, Qatar – The darkest moment of Lionel Messi’s Argentine career began with a solitary walk. He broke free from shoulder-to-shoulder nervous teammates and slipped quietly into the scorching spotlight. It was the final chapter of a wild night, with Argentina trying their first penalty shootout after a 120-minute defeat. Every step from midfield to penalty spot was painfully slow, the pressure gripping Messi’s magical limbs.

It was June 26, 2016, six years after he strode into a similar spotlight at the World Cup. With a smaller trophy within reach that night in New Jersey, he squinted painfully toward the goal. Seconds later, he fired the ball over the bar. He grabbed the jersey with both hands and pulled it violently. As he returned to midfield the same way, he grimaced and covered his face in horror.

Messi ‘broke’, his big friend Sergio Aguero said later, after Argentina lost the Copa America final. “It’s the worst him I’ve ever seen,” Aguero said. Messi used a dugout and supporting teammates to keep his distraught body upright. After the stroke of midnight, he withdrew from the national team. “I strive to be [a] To win the title with Argentina, but that didn’t happen, I couldn’t do it,” he said. The task and its weight “is not for me”.

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All of this was the backdrop to his latest solitary walk, from midfield to another penalty spot, to another scorching spotlight, yet another first after another frantic night here and another 120 minutes. One attempt, this time in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

This time, Messi ignored the pressure when it came to him early on Saturday.

Because this time, in his final World Cup, Messi has changed.

He kept his eyes on the ball and, with the calmness of a shy kid surrounded by siblings and cousins, tricked a Dutch goalkeeper into giving Argentina the lead in a penalty shootout at Parc Rosario. After an unforgettable three hours at the Lusail Stadium, relentless game skills and 17 yellow cards and endless noise, he led Argentina to the semi-finals, his limbs no longer under pressure because, as the Argentine legend Jorge Valdano recently said: “He was liberated”

Over the years, when Argentina’s game was reduced to a savage madhouse, they regularly devoured Messi and his mojo. But here and now, feeling “more experienced and mature,” he wasn’t just a part of Friday’s mayhem; he was a part of Friday’s mayhem. He goes above and beyond. He scored a goal and celebrated with arms outstretched before waltzing to the Dutch bench and standing there with his palms open by his ears for a few iconic seconds.

“I feel disrespected [Netherlands coach Louis] After Van Gaal’s comments before the game,” Messi said after the game. “And some Dutch players talked too much during the game. “

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Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates in front of Dutch players at the end of the World Cup quarter-final at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022.  (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates in front of Dutch players at the end of the World Cup quarter-final at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

He responds with his mouth, but also with his flickering toes. He drops either shoulder to shake defenders. Amidst the intense movement and constant hustle and bustle, he remained calm. He walks at a leisurely pace, finding space, as he does more often than anyone else in modern football, turning traits usually associated with laziness into superpowers.

In the 34th minute, he stood almost still, surveying and processing the chaos around him, before he found space, received the ball and ascended to another planet.He avoided two Dutchmen with his car, but saw six others blocking him, so he took to the sky Aerial ViewAnd pick out an extraterrestrial pass that can only be found via satellite.

The intensity of his first-half touch and pass was near perfect. His second-half penalty was spot on after goalkeeper Andres Norpert tried blatantly but failed to stop him.

Argentina's Lionel Messi talks with Netherlands goalkeeper Andris Norpert during the World Cup quarterfinal match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail City, Qatar, December 09, 2022 , and then try to take a penalty kick.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Argentina’s Lionel Messi talks with Netherlands goalkeeper Andris Norpert during the World Cup quarterfinal match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail City, Qatar, December 09, 2022 , and then try to take a penalty kick. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Messi was comfortable throughout the game – that’s how he felt throughout the month and the final month. He found peace of mind and vision. As he puts it, he’s learned to reflect, to “pay more attention to the little details”; to enjoy the moments on the sport’s biggest stage, rather than hold back. He said he felt “more relaxed” and “calmer” from last summer as the Copa America title was finally won, which allowed us to work in a different way without anxiety.

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So the stress that still exists is no longer an obstacle. Messi has emerged from its dominion as a different person — and, by extension, a different player, an unrivaled player, like his Barcelona self in his 20s.

In the past, s***housery — a football term for tricky and ugly foul play — made him a curtailed sideshow. Friday, until the wee hours of Saturday, he is the star of the house. In the chaos following the penalty shoot-out, after other Argentine players smeared defeat into the faces of their shattered opponents, Messi approached the Dutch coach and raised his right hand in a snapping four-finger and thumb-to-speak motion , taunting them.

Shortly after that encounter, he saw Dutch striker Woerter Weghorst walk past him during a TV interview. “What are you looking at, Bobo? He snapped out the Spanish word for “fool.”

Messi celebrated loudly, and his core vibe was one of joy rather than relief. As he has been at all games, his address to reporters was gracious and clear. He’s now two steps away from reaching the semifinals against Croatia (Tuesdays at 2 p.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo), who beat him in Russia four years ago and who will likely do the same to the Dutchman. Go tackle, crush and slash Friday.

Maybe Croats also speak. If so, all the better.

“I think Leo felt a little bit attacked,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said after Friday’s game. “and [he] Prove that he is the best ever. “

Lionel Messi celebrates after Argentina beat the Netherlands in a penalty shootout at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail City, Qatar, December 09, 2022.  (Photo by Ian McNichol/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi celebrates after Argentina beat the Netherlands in a penalty shootout at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail City, Qatar, December 09, 2022. (Photo by Ian McNichol/Getty Images)



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