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Simon Heptinstall On March - 3 - 2012

The Magic of Messi Sees Off Switzerland

Small is better. Man has always tried to make things smaller in order to improve them. We had vinyl records, then we had CD’s & now we have MP3 players. The same seems to go for football. For a while at the start of the millennium it was larger, more athletic players that seemed to be winning out & changing the nature of football. The likes of Patrick Vieira & Steven Gerrard were held up as the future model for football teams to follow. But there has been a change of thinking over the past four or five years as Barcelona & Spain have started to dominate club & international football. Now it seems that small, quick, intelligent players that can keep the ball on the ground & move it around at pace are defining how we think about the beautiful game.

pictureThis may seem like a rambling and unrelated opening that has nothing to do with the Switzerland vs Argentina match from Wednesday night, but in fact it does. The star men in the match were all of small stature and they all play in a similar style. Lionel Messi was the match winner and star attraction in Bern and his hat-trick, while not against top class opposition, will still come as welcome relief to him. He is a player who shines so brightly for Barcelona but who often faces criticism for his performances at international level. In truth this will do little to win over critics of his for the national team. It won’t be until 2014 at the next World Cup will Messi really be able to put the record straight.

But anyway, back to midgets. Looking through the forwards available to Argentina, it’s clear that like Spain, Argentina’s best players are small. Messi, Aguero, Tevez, Lavezzi and Palacio are all small, fast players who use their pace & good movement to allow them to score plenty of goals for their respected clubs. That is of course is not to say that taller players like Higuain, Lamela & Pastore aren’t full of quality too, but right now it’s is the smaller players that are really running the show for Argentina. And this proved to be the case against Switzerland.

Argentina started the match with Sergio Augero & Lionel Messi up front with Jose Sosa & Maxi Rodriguez playing ahead of Javier Mascherano & Rodrigo Brana in midfield. And it was Augero & Messi who combined for the opening goal in classic South American style. Messi picked the ball up near the touchline & turned his marker with ease as he ran towards goal before playing a lovely one two with Augero. The Man City striker’s beautiful back heel set the ball up perfectly for Messi to take a touch & then slide the ball easily past the helpless Benaglio in the Switzerland goal. This was a near clone of kind of goals Messi scores on a weekly basis for Barcelona and Alejandro Sabella, the head coach of Argentina, will hope his star player continues to perform for the national team the way he does for Barcelona.

But this match was not just about the midgets from South America, Switzerland have their own “magic dwarf” in the shape of Xherdan Shaqiri. Der Zaiberzwerg, as he is known, levelled the match just after half time after a cross from Lichtsteiner was air kicked by Granit Xhaka and the ball fell to Shaqiri who smashed it into the top corner from inside the box. This was a fully deserved equaliser for the hosts who had gone close to leveling in the first half through Xhaka and who deserve much credit for the way they played.

However parity ultimately didn’t last and in a cruel end to the game Argentina added two late goals as Messi completed his hattrick. His second goal came in the 88th minute after a defensive mishap presented the ball to Messi who promptly ran through on goal and lifted the ball over the keeper and in off the bar. Worse was to follow. In the 3rd minute of injury time, Sergio Higuain was brought down in the box and Messi tucked away the resulting penalty and went away with the match ball safely tucked under his little arms.

This match was a credit to Switzerland and their growing success as a footballing nation. While there has been financial problems for some of the smaller clubs in the domestic game, the national teams continued success at reaching major tournaments, coupled with Basel’s impressive Champions League run this season, has resulted in some of the largest clubs in Europe looking at the top talent that is coming through right now for Switzerland.

With Shaqiri already off to Bayern Munich in the summer, much of the attention has turned to Granit Xhaka with the race for his signature hotting up. Choosing the right club to get first team football and improve as a player will not only be key concerns for the likes of Shaqiri and Xhaka but also for the national team. They simply can’t allow their brightest talents to waist away on the bench for a European giant and how these players get on after they leave Basel may determine just how successful Switzerland will be in the next few years.

For Argentina this match will offer little more than a moral boost for a country who have failed to perform at major tournaments in the past decade. Having given poor accounts of themselves at the World Cup and the Copa America over the last two years, much will be expected of them when the World Cup takes place in Brazil in 2014. No sweeter prize is possible for Argentina than to win the World Cup at the home of their greatest rival and with the likes of Messi & Augero reaching their peaks in two years time, this may be their greatest chance in years to win the ultimate prize in international football.

There are still many question marks over whether or not this team can really function as a cohesive unit and help to get the best out of their amazing talent up front. But if they can then Argentina will be a massive threat to the likes of Brazil, Germany and Spain. It may be that in two years time, small really is better. Not since Maradona over twenty years ago has such a small player held such responsibility for one nation. If Messi is able to reproduce this form from Wednesday at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, he may once and for all silence those last few remaining doubters.

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