At the end of Argentina's pre-match news conference, Ever Banega got up and promptly walked out of the wrong door. He was quickly guided in the correct direction but the episode raised a smile given that, at this critical juncture in the World Cup, Banega is the man charged with directing La Albiceleste's traffic to the intended destination.
Banega was brought in from the cold to smooth out Argentina's transitions against Nigeria and promptly produced exactly what Jorge Sampaoli wanted: a beautifully-flighted, almost casual 40-yard pass to Lionel Messi, who tamed it in breathtaking fashion and scored a magnificent goal. The supply line had brought instant rewards and now, although Sampaoli would not confirm his starting lineup for Saturday's round-of-16 match against France, Banega will almost certainly be charged with bringing the best out of Argentina's maestro.
"I really just had to raise my head," Banega said of the pass. "He is the one who set the game and made the ball valuable." It was virtually the only question of the news conference in which Banega was asked about something in which he might have had agency. The others were all centred on Messi: what he brought to the team, how he had taken Argentina's woeful start to the World Cup, whether he had developed as a character through their time together in the national team. Funnelled through Banega, it was all about Messi.
That, in fact, would be a reasonable description of Sampaoli's intention in restoring Banega to the lineup. Against Iceland and Croatia, Argentina had been almost unwatchably sterile: their midfield is perhaps lower in quality than any that has represented the country in two decades and there are certainly few players available to Sampaoli who can supply Messi with possession frequently. Messi may be characterised as superhuman but he needs help. Sampaoli knew Banega, a veteran of the international stage but a player who has always hovered a notch below the top bracket, was his best bet of freeing his most important weapon.
"I'm sure France have a plan to neutralise Leo but we have our own plan to make his life easier," said Sampaoli, sitting next to Banega in Kazan Arena's auditorium. That involves making sure he does not have to do everything himself; against Nigeria their performance was once again far from perfect but there was, at least, a far more proactive feel with Banega pulling the strings. And the tantalising truth about Argentina is that, if you can just make sure Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and company are given the right service, the potential to run amok is virtually limitless.
"We want a team that can set up sharply in the opposing half and then try to dominate while keeping possession," Sampaoli continued. It all points to another focal role for Banega, who turned 30 on Friday and might consider this the perfect opportunity to receive career-high levels of recognition.
For a player of such intelligence and poise it has been a long time coming; he has had a colourful time of things and various scrapes away from the pitch have not helped his cause. In Feb. 2012, buying petrol after a Valencia training session just as he would every week, his concentration slipped and he forgot to apply the handbrake properly after getting out of the car to make the transaction. The result was a horrible accident in which the vehicle ran over his leg, fracturing his left ankle. He missed four months of football; it took a long time to return to his best -- he was left out of Argentina's 2014 World Cup squad and had to rebuild with a loan spell at Newell's Old Boys back home -- but now, with Sevilla, he is feted once again and luck is back on his side.
Had Manuel Lanzini not ruptured his ACL in the buildup to the World Cup, Banega might not be the man Sampaoli looked to now; in the event, there is an argument that he has suddenly become the most important cog in an unsteady, spluttering machine.
"I played the last match and tried to help the team as much as I could," Banega said, his very presence in the room suggesting he is viewed within the camp as a significant figure now even if he did not illuminate it with his footballer-speak. Should he help it to the same degree in the next one, Argentina could be in the World Cup quarterfinals and could, at last, be purring.