DOHA, Qatar -- Argentina are a work in progress. Or, perhaps, a voyage of self-discovery. This may seem like an odd thing to say when you've lost just one of your previous 39 internationals, when you're coming off three wins on the spin and when you're in the last eight of the World Cup. But there is a weird and unexpected fragility to this side and it came to the fore against Australia on Saturday night. On the flipside, when things aren't quite working as they should, there's a chap named Lionel Messi to call upon.
Buoyed by a phenomenal support that turned the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium into a sort of Estadio Monumental, Gulf Edition (the stands were a sea of Albiceleste with a tiny Tetris-piece yellow shape representing Australia), Argentina were 2-0 up and cruising for most of the game.
Then, with barely 15 minutes to go, substitute Craig Goodwin's hit-and-hope from the edge of the box rocketed off the back of Enzo Fernandez and looped past keeper Emi Martinez to make it 2-1. Scarcely five minutes later, left-back Aziz Behich nearly achieved World Cup highlight reel immortality, with a ridiculous mazy run that saw him slither past four opponents and fire on goal, only for Lisandro Martinez to somehow get a block in. Behich, a 31-year-old journeyman who has turned out for 10 different clubs in his career, was playing in the Turkish second division this time last year. Earlier in the game, he clashed with Messi, with the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner getting in his face.
Evidently some of that Messi stardust landed on him. "Had he pulled it off, it would have been Messi in a yellow shirt," Australia boss Graham Arnold said after the game.
It was a reminder that the World Cup, especially in the knockouts, can be a great leveller and that every moment on the pitch is an opportunity for a no-name to enter lore.
"Two-nil would have been fair," Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said afterwards. "But that's football. Football is about moments. Moments when you dominate and moments when you suffer."
The Behich scare did shake Argentina awake. In the final minutes they could -- and should -- have scored bundles more, with Messi and substitute Lautaro Martinez both squandering multiple chances. But, again, deep in injury time, 18-year-old Garang Kuol -- the youngest player to feature in a World Cup knockout game since Pele in 1958 -- forced a tough save from Emiliano Martinez that would have levelled the game.
This is not how things are supposed to unfold. Not when you are comfortably in control and, pound for pound, several orders of magnitude more talented than the opposition. And that should give Argentina boss Scaloni something to think about.
That's a lot of smoke for not much fire. And yet, in many ways, Scaloni's game plan had worked (at least right up until the final third.) He thought Australia were going to sit deep with two banks of four (and they did), which meant Argentina would have plenty of the ball and there would be no space behind. That meant there was no point in going for Lautaro Martinez and his north-south runs, so he went instead with Papu Gomez and his trickery (Gomez was ineffective, but the idea was solid.) Argentina poked and prodded and was patient. They got the first-half goal they wanted when Messi scored for the first time in a World Cup knockout game and they looked to be on their way.
Except then the tempo dropped. Argentine possession became sterile possession. Australia didn't push forward, seemingly content to keep things close and try to nick an equalizer at the end. With Gomez having an off day (not for the first time this tournament) and Angel Di Maria sidelined, it became obvious that this team isn't exactly teeming with non-Messi creativity. And, indeed, on several occasions Messi dropped all the way in front of the back four to receive the ball in an effort to conjure up some ideas.
Ideas which this team needs to run, because, for all the impressive results, they're wanting in other areas. They don't press high to force turnovers (it's basically impossible to do with Messi in the team), they don't have a playmaker quarterbacking the side, and they don't have a big central striker to hold the ball up. There isn't much in the way of patterns of play either, in part because Messi -- regularly listed at centre-forward on FIFA's tactical team sheet but, in fact, wandering wherever his genius takes him -- makes constructing such structured attacks difficult. That is also in part because Scaloni has changed plenty of personnel in each of Argentina's games; Messi and Rodrigo De Paul are the only ones in his front six to have started each of the four matches played thus far.
Without the above, you're left with a somewhat limited arsenal: set pieces, opposing mistakes, one-on-ones and, well, Messi. Fine for Australia, but Netherlands in the next round on Friday are likely to offer a sterner test.
Scaloni no doubt realized this and it probably explains why he switched to a back three just four minutes into the second half, replacing Gomez with Lisandro Martinez and pushing Nahuel Molina and Marcos Acuna up the pitch in an attempt to provide more width. It worked defensively to a point -- until the Fernandez own goal and the madness at the end -- but did little to add attacking oomph.
The good news? Well, some of it is likely down to fatigue. Messi himself noted how they only had three days to prepare for what turned out to be a physical game. They'll have six full days ahead of the Dutch and that should help. Equally, as disjointed and lacking in fluidity as they looked at times, there does seem to be an underlying belief and unity to this team. That matters in a tournament setting, as anyone who remembers Jorge Sampaoli's side at Russia 2018 will confirm.
"I have 26 players and I have faith in every last one of them," Scaloni said. "I know they can all help us, depending on the moment."
It's something you hear often from coaches. Except with Scaloni it feels genuine.
And then there's Messi, who turned in one of his better World Cup performances in an Argentina shirt. Their recent success -- witness the unbeaten run and the Copa America win -- was predicated upon the fact that Messi was a cog in the machine, not the guy carrying the whole machine on his back. But, at times, he showed he can still carry the team and is more than willing to do so. You can't expect him to do it every game and Scaloni, no doubt, doesn't want him to have to do it in every game.
But it's comforting to know that when things aren't quite working, there's a Plan B called Leo.