Buenos Aires: What a difference a day makes. Or rather, what a difference a tactical overhaul makes, as Argentina showed in ripping Costa Rica to shreds to reach the Copa America quarter-finals.
Released from being a 'number nine', Lionel Messi revelled in being what he really is - namely, a striker who likes to attack from deeper, leaving real centre forwards in front of him.
Argentina are, as coaches and players past and present have lined up to hammer home in recent days, not Barcelona. But, as Diego Maradona pointed out before the Costa Rica game, that fact - and draws with Bolivia and Colombia - do not mean that Messi is not the greatest footballer on the planet.
With Barcelona, he is a master at scoring goals at a phenomenal rate - most of them spectacular. But he is also a master creator and coach Sergio Batista allowed him to slip into that role yesterday as scoring duties were shared out between two-goal star Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria.
Batista bit the bullet, dropping popular Carlos Tevez and putting Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain up front, allowing Messi to roam where he wanted, waving his wand as the conductor of an orchestra which, as if by magic, is suddenly playing in tune. Messi simply excelled on Monday, leading the dazed Costa Ricans a merry dance, setting up two goals and countless other chances which, had Higuain in particular not been so profligate in his finishing, could have produced a score approaching double figures.
Messi said the woes of the past week, which had seen fans turn on the side, were forgotten. "Now another Copa is starting," said Messi. "I want to thank people for getting behind us tonight - we had missed such affection. I want to thank the people of Cordoba for their backing for me and for everybody," Messi said in pointed allusion to the incessant and occasionally brutal criticism of the squad ever since the tournament began. Batista was able to pronounce himself "very satisfied" as he greeted reporters after the game.
"We created a host of chances - which had not been the case earlier," he acknowledged. "We were full of confidence
and this produced a strong showing against Costa Rica."
It was almost as if the Argentinians had delved back into their history of 30 years earlier, when Mario Kempes, a son of Cordoba, was knocking in the goals on the way to World Cup glory in 1978.
Fittingly, Kempes was in the 54,000 crowd in the stadium which bears his name. Batista noted that Monday's match had seen the Argentines marry two qualities which they and Brazil possess in spades - yet often fail to blend properly. "We had individuals playing at the highest level but also a collective engagement, which at times was very good," Batista said. "The team showed a lot of character to do that after two games where things did not quite work so well. But these players always show the right attitude."
While eulogising the group Batista could not resist singling out the sheer brilliance of Messi. "Today Messi shone - so did the team. Leo changed position a bit and was freer to receive the ball." When the man from Rosario got it - which was often - the destruction he wrought was something special to behold.