Martinez gives magnificent Messi helping hand in last-eight epic

Getty Images

News of Brazil's elimination at the hands of Croatia had kick-started the party among the Argentina supporters, but it represented a warning as their team's quarter-final against the Netherlands also reached penalties.

Like Brazil, Argentina thought they had done enough prior to the shoot-out. They led 2-0 with less than 10 minutes to play and then 2-1 with just one last free-kick to defend.

"Messi this way; Neymar this way," had been the cry from Doha Metro workers earlier in the day, indicating the two routes for supporters looking to watch the two great South American number 10s.

But after carrying Argentina to the brink of the semi-finals, Lionel Messi surely feared he was heading in the same direction as Neymar: home.

The Albiceleste captain deserved better. As against Australia in the previous round, he had been outstanding, assisting the opener and scoring the second.

Louis van Gaal's confidence in the Netherlands' ability to "neutralise" Messi proved unfounded. It was a belief that led him to unwisely talk down Argentina's chances as long as "everything falls on the shoulders of Lionel Messi".

However, the Dutch coach's championing of "the team over the individual player" appeared to have some merit as Argentina failed to get over the line.

It seemed Messi had done it all, but he had not. The legendary forward alone could not ensure his team-mates stayed switched on in the 101st of 100 minutes.

After scoring with the Netherlands' first shot on target, Wout Weghorst – the second target man thrown on by Van Gaal – repeated the trick with the second, prodding past Emiliano Martinez after a daring free-kick routine gave him one last chance.

Messi's performance to that point suggested this was his tournament, but perhaps Van Gaal was right. The great man could not do it on his own. Now, he would take only a single penalty and then have to put his trust in his team-mates for the first time at this tournament.

Yet for all Argentina's failings – their reliance on Messi to create chances and their profligacy from those opportunities, complemented by their inability to enjoy comfort in matches that appeared long since won – spot-kicks are something those colleagues have shown they can handle.

The Albiceleste advanced by this method in their previous meeting with Van Gaal's Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals and also required a shoot-out to advance to last year's Copa America final.

The second success – against Colombia – was inspired not by Messi but by Martinez, making a hero of the Aston Villa goalkeeper back home.

"It was difficult at times," Messi said after that match. "But we have Emi, and he's phenomenal. We trusted him."

That trust was abundantly clear again on Friday – not only from Messi in Martinez but from Martinez in himself.

The goalkeeper sprang away to his right to spectacularly deny Virgil van Dijk first up, celebrating delightedly, and then got across to the other side of the goal to frustrate Steven Berghuis, this time dancing with joy.

Argentina insisted on doing things the hard way, so Enzo Fernandez dragged wide, but Lautaro Martinez finally got the job done, sending Messi away to celebrate with his keeper – this a two-man show for once.

There was no sign of those celebrations ceasing an hour after the final spot-kick, although attention will eventually have to turn to Croatia and the last four. Croatia made the final in 2018, beating Argentina 3-0 on the way, but that can only be considered a kind draw when France, England or Portugal might be the alternative in the other half.

Messi will resume his role as the leading man on Tuesday, no doubt, but he at least does so with the knowledge there is back-up should it be required.