Saturday, 11 June 2016

Chicago goes wild for Messi as he proves his greatness again!

CHICAGO - So that’s what all the fuss was about. The overwhelming majority of the sellout crowd here at Soldier Field spent the first 61 minutes of Argentina versus Panama yearning, once more, to see Lionel Messi in action. They turned up in their droves, hoping to see the best player in the world. But even so, few would have expected this.

Tata Martino had said on Thursday that Messi would be fit enough to play in his country’s second Copa America Centenario match, but he did not specific how much of it. There was, therefore, widespread disappointment in the build-up when it became known that he would start on the bench.

Not that it really affected enjoyment levels for many of the supporters here. Argentina took the lead through a Nicolas Otamendi header, but the largest cheers were reserved for glimpses of Messi on the big screen.

Poor old Angel Di Maria, struck down with another major tournament injury here, got little sympathy from the crowd either. On Monday at Levi’s Stadium he marked the passing of his grandmother with a goal, an assist and a man-of-the-match performance. The fans cheered for Messi all the same. Here in Chicago, almost as soon as he hit the turf, stricken, the chants went up for Messi to come on. It verged on a lack of respect.
There were even a few boos from the posh seats when it was Tottenham’s Erik Lamela and not the Barcelona star who was thrown into the fray. If fans started to get anxious that they would perhaps not see their idol after all, they need not have worried.

Five minutes after the break, he was shown warming up on the big screen and it became clear that this would finally be the moment. When he was beckoned to the bench just before the hour mark, everybody here knew they were about to get what they came for. As he stood there on the touchline receiving some final instructions for a couple of minutes, the anticipation grew and then, with a huge roar, his famous No.10 was put up on the board and his name was read out by the stadium announcer. It was everything the people wanted to see, but was he actually fit enough to make a difference to what was, at that point, a stuttering Argentina side? You bet he was.

He spent six of his first seven minutes on the pitch in a withdrawn role, directing play with one or two touches – each of which were cheered heartily, of course. In truth he did not look like he had fully recovered from the back injury he suffered in a pre-tournament friendly. But then he darted into the box to seize on a loose ball, weighed up the goalkeeper and fired a left-footed shot almost effortlessly past the helpless Jaime Penedo. It was pure Messi. Those instincts will always be there, through injury and, surely, long after he retires.

This was exactly why the American public has expended so much energy on him over the past few days. Crowds have gathered at airports, hotels, wherever Argentina has happened to be training, whether in California or Illinois. Above all, at the stadiums where they have hoped to be able to see him strutting his stuff and to be able to tell family and friends, perhaps some of that may not even care, that they saw Lionel Messi playing at his peak.

What a story they will have to tell. He surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. Ten minutes after his opener, he sent a majestic free kick into the top corner. If Penedo had no chance with the first, he was completely powerless to stop this, a textbook example of a set piece.

Of course, he was not done. After his second, fans had stopped cheering every touch. Why make do with that sort of mediocrity when Messi was putting on a recital?

Still he improved. There was a brief expression of disappointment from fans when it appeared he had lost possession in the area as he closed in on a hat trick. But no matter. He soon won it back - destined to win it back, perhaps – steadied himself and found the same bottom corner he’s been finding for the best part of a decade. He finds all the corners, no matter whether he’s in Barcelona or Chicago.

He had been on the pitch 27 minutes and scored three goals. He transformed this underperforming Argentina side into a world beater - and will be expected to do for the rest of the summer, but that can wait, for now.

He even had time to create the fifth here. His fine ball out to Marcos Rojo was headed back across for Messi’s old friend Sergio Aguero – who also received a very enthusiastic welcome when he came on - to head home. This was party football, and Messi was the master of ceremonies.

The fans had come to see Lionel Messi in action, and they got exactly what they wanted. Even more so, in fact. This was a scarcely believable performance and one that the 53,885 people here at Soldier Field will never forget.

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