RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Argentina take on the Netherlands in their World Cup semi-final in Sao Paulo later on Wednesday with superstar Lionel Messi partially hamstrung - despite being perfectly fit.
In rude health and having enjoyed a solid if not stellar tournament, Messi will undoubtedly be hampered by the absence of Angel Di Maria.
For it is Di Maria, missing with a thigh injury, who makes the runs that give Messi his options in midfield when receiving the ball and turning toward goal.
A microcosm of their relationship came in Argentina’s quarter-final victory over Belgium.
In the 27th minute Messi received the ball just outside the center circle in his own half.
Two Belgian defenders closed him down, but he found space by feinting to his right and then moving the ball back to his left. As the defenders backpedaled frantically, Messi as if he might be contained and forced backwards.
Instead, he rolled a perfect 40-yard pass into the path of Di Maria.
His through-ball sliced slid tantalizingly close, but just beyond, the retreating defender, curling delicately across him and on to Di Maria’s toes at the edge of the penalty box.
It was almost better that Di Maria’s subsequent shot was blocked by Belgium’s captain and stalwart central defender Vincent Company.
Messi’s pass was so audaciously precise that its aesthetic accomplishment did not deserve to be upstaged by a goal.
Di Maria could have stopped the ball at his feet and walked away and the crowd would still have applauded.
Unfortunately for Argentina, Di Maria suffered the injury that will keep his out of today’s game during that move.
Messi will miss the danger Di Maria creates with smart, angled forward runs. Di Maria’s probable replacement, Esquivel Lavezzi, is an equally fast and direct player, but not quite as dangerous on the ball or as clever with his movement off it.
Gonazalo Higuain will play, but his movement is far more central. Another quick, dangerous Argentine attacker, Sergio Aguero, has been injured and may not be fully fit to face the Dutch.
And so, as a result, one of Messi’s most dangerous weapons may be hampered against the Dutch. His passing is overshadowed by his goalscoring, but it is equally potent.
An analysis by Five Thirty Eight showed that Messi attempts almost twice as many through-balls as any other forward in the world, and still has the highest ratio of assists from through-balls to attempted through-balls.
Without Di Maria to create options ahead of Messi and behind the defense, the Dutch will have one less facet of the Argentine attack to contend with.
Editing by:Ossian Shine/Mitch Phillips