In a moment of injury time magic, FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi weaved through a tangle of Brazilian defenders and dispatched a left footed shot past goalkeeper Victor to seal a stunning, last minute 1-0 victory for Argentina against Brazil at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar today. Messi's goal ended a 5 match winless streak for the Albiceleste against Brazil and, amazingly enough, marked his first ever goal against the Selecao. The goal did justice to a match rife with high percentage scoring opportunities from both teams. Brazil pressed the attack in the first half with Dani Alves and Andre Santos roaring down both flanks, and Alves, in particular, threatening the Argentine goal. Brazilian midfielders Lucas, Ramires and Elias aggressively closed down the Argentine attack while playing without the ball and, conversely, distributed nicely to Neymar, Robinho and Ronaldinho when surging forward. Alves had the first real scoring opportunity of the match when a one-two pass with David Luiz enabled him to fire a rocket at the Argentine goal that hit the cross bar. Later in the half, a Neymar corner resulted in a ball falling to Ronaldinho in the box who, with his back to goal, opted for a back heel strike that goalkeeper Romero scooped up comfortably. Dinho also threatened the Argentine goal with a curling free kick off his right foot that Romero punched out of danger. As the half progressed, Argentina began to collect themselves and posed their own threats on goal with shots from Gonzalo Higuain saved by Victor in a match that was rapidly turning into a showcase for goalkeeping talent. Messi started to impose himself in the Argentine midfield and began one of his patented, Maradona-like runs based off passes from Zanetti and Banega that resulted in a long range, left footed shot that sailed over the crossbar by inches.
The second half continued the end to end football that fans expected from the South American clasico with Neymar and Robinho running at defenders and setting up dangerous free kick opportunities for Ronaldinho and Dani Alves. On the Argentine side of the equation, the substitution of Ezequiel Lavezzi for Higuain paid dividends as the Napoli striker created opportunities for Lionel Messi by commanding the right flank and distracting Andre Santos and David Luiz in the process. In the 56th minute, Lavezzi tore down the right flank and passed to Javier Pastore, whose shot appeared to have been blocked by the elbow of Thiago Silva, though no penalty was awarded. Meanwhile, Neymar continued to press the attack for Brazil and found himself repeatedly fouled and manhandled the closer he got to goal. In the 63rd minute, the Argentine defense hacked down Neymar in the box and the ball neatly fell to Robinho, but his shot went just wide.
Mano's flurry of substitutions with twenty minutes remaining--Douglas for Ronaldinho, Andre for Neymar and Jucilei for Ramires--seemed to suggest resignation to a 0-0 draw and an accompanying decision to provide his young players with much needed international experience. But Ramires's departure marked a deep, tactical mistake by Menezes because it freed Messi to find space in midfield that he had rarely enjoyed before. Deep into injury time, the Barcelona number 10 picked up the ball near center circle, burst forward, cut the ball onto his left foot and hit a lawnmower of a shot past Victor's left to seal a landmark victory for Argentina after their humiliating, 3-1 loss at home to Brazil in Rosario in World Cup qualifying in September 2009 and the team's recent 1-0 loss to Japan under coach Batista himself.
This was a humiliating defeat for Brazil as it exposed their lack of a single, world class, pure striker. Ronaldinho did his best to generate attacking opportunities alongside Corinthians star Elias but he lacked a powerful center forward such as Luis Fabiano with the strength to carve out that extra yard of space and put the ball in the back of the net. On the brighter side, Brazil's midfield is finally starting to click as the Lucas-Ramires partnership promises to bring much needed coherence to the team, although they still lack a creative playmaker in the form of Kaka, Elano or Paulo Henrique Ganso.
Despite not having as many high percentage shots on goal, Argentina clearly deserved the victory because Batista succeded where Maradona failed in freeing up Lionel Messi, the best striker in the world. Batista will have to worry about his defense, however, as he cannot rely on Romero to bail out the Albiceleste as often as he did today in Doha.
Overall, this was great end to end football and a tantalizing glimpse of two teams who will, in all likelihood, be the clear favorites for the World Cup in 2014, based as it will be on South American soil in Brazil. If Mano shores up his strikeforce with more mature incarnations of Neymar, Pato and Andre, Batista consolidates his defense, and Messi stays fit, the Selecao v. Albiceleste will probably be everyone's favored match-up for the World Cup final in 2014.
Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)
For more on the history of Brazil v. Argentina, see:
Bringing Back the Beautiful Game: Brazil v. Argentina: A Brief World Cup History