Roberto Baggio

Roberto Baggio
Il Divin Codino

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Club rivals Lionel Messi & Gonzalo Higuaín combine to make a deadly partnership for Argentina

Animosities between Barcelona and Real Madrid were put aside for the night in Buenos Aires, as the pair delivered phenomenal performances to lead the Argentine side to victory.

 It is hardly a secret that the venerable institutions of Barcelona and Real Madrid do not always see eye-to-eye. For decades one of the most famous rivalries in world football, recent seasons have seen an ugly escalation to proceedings.

Verbal tirades off the pitch in the press are followed by ugly clashes on it, and the situation reached boiling point in this year's Supercopa when members of each team's coaching staff squared up on the sidelines. There is no denying, however, that away from the fracas the Spanish giants are blessed with outrageously talented players; and two of them combined delightfully on Friday evening in what can only be an extremely encouraging sign for Argentine football.

In his competitive debut as Albiceleste coach, Alejandro Sabella took the decision to pair Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín together as his two front-men. He was rewarded by one of the most convincing performances by the side in recent memory, as Chile submitted to a 4-1 defeat in the Monumental to mark a perfect start to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Mention must be made of the opponents, who committed football hara-kiri in Buenos Aires. Roja coach Claudio Borghi must be admired for refusing to play for a draw, but an all-out attacking formation was painfully exposed away from home, and missing players of the calibre of Alexis Sánchez one must wonder if the amiable trainer got it wrong in not giving at least a wink to pragmatism during what turned into an Andean nightmare. 

Let's not take anything away from the hosts though, and especially Higuaín. 'Pipita' has the reputation of a prolific - if occasionally profligate - goalscorer, but on Friday he offered signs that he can be the natural heir to Gabriel Batistuta and so much more.

He ran, sprinting a full 70m to punish Chile on the counter-attack and get on the end of Ángel di María's exquisite ball to notch the first. He passed, threading Messi through for the second goal with an assist the Barcelona man would have been proud of.

And, of course, he scored. The hat-trick he notched was composed of three world-class finishes: a bombastic blast past Bravo with the right; a half-volley converted with the left without blinking; a second with his weaker foot delicately placed out of the hapless keeper's reach. His triple brought him up to 13 in just 19 appearances with the national team, an impressive record for any striker.

For Messi, even though the humble Rosario native would never admit it, there is one statistic that was key on Friday. Two years, six months and nine days: the time that had elapsed between 'La Pulga's' last competitive international goal, in a 4-0 victory over Venezuela. An incredible drought, especially when considering that in the two full seasons that passed in that period, he netted no less than 100 times for Barcelona.

And boy, did he enjoy it. Having all but robbed the ball from di María's boot-strings for the right to beat Bravo, Messi let slip the most fleeting glimpse of bashful contrition as he hugged the Madrid man, before also being embraced by Higuaín in a moment that Argentine fans will hope serves as a release for all the tension that had built up in the days of the inexplicable drought.

Other players also excelled in River Plate's home. Di María looked more comfortable than ever in national team colours, his move down the field necessitating a more democratic approach to his game which was amply shown with two wonderful assists for 'Pipita'. He was ably assisted in the creative department by Jose Sosa, who never stopped running and drifting across the field and who did more than most to disorientate an already punch-drunk Chile defence in the second-half.

The night, however, belonged to Messi and Higuaín. They sealed the victory beyond a shadow of a doubt with an exhibition move which ended in a goal. Almost taking glee in torturing isolated centre-back Waldo Ponce after a defensive error, a succession of tricks and flicks between the two left Gonzalo all alone, and the on-fire striker was never going to miss as he secured his hat-trick. 4-1 Argentina, and what Sabella and the entire nation hopes was the birth of the partnership to restore joy to the Albiceleste faithful.

After the pain and suffering of the Copa América, one had almost forgot that, with some of the best players in the world, Argentina were capable of playing explosive attacking football. Friday's demolition serves as a timely reminder for South America and the world what the nation can still do; and they have the unlikely union of Blanco and Blaugrana to thank for it.

Originally written by: Daniel Edwards