IAN HERBERT: Alexis Mac Allister was not expected to be part of Argentina’s World Cup squad but is now integral to their starting XI – Brighton’s midfielder has helped them ‘rediscover their memory of how to play’ and seemed on a string with Lionel Messi
The rich precedent of Argentinian World Cup stars playing for British clubs goes right back to Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa driving up White Hart Lane in the aftermath of the ticker tape and Mario Kempes at Buenos Aires’ Estadio Monumental, in the summer of 1978.
It was the magician they all had eyes and songs for on Saturday night, though Alexis Mac Allister – the man Argentina’s La Nacion newspaper says has helped the team to ‘rediscover their memory of how to play’ after that rocky start – was Messi’s supply line and running mate.
Alexis Mac Allister was brilliant for Argentina during their 2-1 win over Australia on Saturday
The Brighton midfielder demonstrated his class during the last-16 win for his country in Qatar
The two seemed on a string at times: Messi prowling, looking, intuiting, where the pockets of space would be and Mac Allister generally, though not exclusively, in the inside-left channel, trying to capitalise on the space opened up by Australia’s close shepherding of his companion. There was a moment in the first half when some pressing needed to be done. Messi cast a glance across. Mac Allister did the job.
It’s mesmerising when Messi scores from the angle he did, yet it was the man being asked to work the hard yards at the back of defence, at the Amex Arena, who saw the picture. Mac Allister punched the 15-yard vertical ball with his right instep through a channel of space on the right side of the penalty box and Nicolas Otamendi killed it, allowing Messi to take it up and arc a goal which punctured an air of mounting concern.
Easy to be overlooked when you’re subordinate to a genius. There were very few ’20’ jerseys among the thousands flocking through the metro station, demanding ‘Vamos Argentina’ on Sunday night.
Mac Allister was not even expected to be a part of this adventure. Had FIFA not expanded maximum squad sizes for this World Cup from 23 to 26, he probably wouldn’t have made it. But when he did, an injury to Villarreal’s Giovanni Lo Celso opened up more opportunity which Mac Allister, who is of Irish descent, has seized.
La Nacion wrote of his ‘touch, pause and panorama’ after he recovered more possession than any Argentinian against Poland. That a member of the Premier League’s seventh best team should be so fundamental to the creative engine is by no means surprising in this Argentina team.
Otamendi, the defender assisting that first goal, always seemed an accident waiting to happen for Manchester City – and that was when he was on the right side of 30, not a 34-year-old seeing out his career at Benfica. Marcos Acuna and Papu Gomez are at Sevilla, third bottom of LaLiga.
The same applies to Aziz Behich, Australia’s 31-year-old Dundee United left back, who ran through the entire Argentina defence and almost equalised towards the end. That’s the beautiful World Cup aesthetic. For the journeyman Argentinians, a support base sent from the gods certainly helps.
Mac Allister, 23, is certainly not in that bracket. When the second half started and Argentina looked to build stronger foundations, it was he who burgled the ball from Jackson Irvine and threaded it through for another Messi deflected shot. He turned over possession with regularity and built up play, constantly clocking Messi as he weighed up his options.
His father, a left-back who never made it out of Argentinian club football, came close to playing for the country at USA 1994 but wasn’t selected, despite even making it into the official sticker album that summer. ‘He didn’t make it, so he wants me to do everything I can,’ Mac Allister said. Once more, on Saturday night, he made good on his promise to do so.