Argentina took over the Maracana and Lionel Messi eventually took command of the stage last night as Argentina defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-1. The victory may well be the initial step on the way to Argentina winning the World Cup for what would be the first time in 28 years.
The two-time champions were somewhat underwhelming against a Bosnia side playing in their first ever game in a World Cup, but eventually did enough to put their first points on the board.
It was Messi who completed the win with a brilliant strike, but Argentina still have work to do to fine-tune their team. The experiment with a new formation did not work, and they were made to work very hard. The somewhat laboured display for much of the match, however, was at odds with their lightning beginning.
Argentina started with great attacking intent and they were ahead within three minutes.Alex Sabella’s side began the game at an extraordinary tempo, which brought them to the brink of the Bosnian box. The only recourse for the World Cup debutants was to foul. From the subsequent free-kick delivered by Messi, the ball bounced into the net off the unfortunate defender Sead Kolasinac.
Argentina 2 Bosnia-Herzegovina 1 player ratings
Argentina 2 Bosnia-Herzegovina 1 player ratings
1/22 Argentina: Romero 7/10
Saved well from several Bosnian efforts without ever being really tested. Got caught out of position for late Ibisevic goal but played well.
2/22 Zabaleta 6
Not at his flying best and got caught out for late Bosnia goal but did fine overall.
3/22 Rojo 6
Yellow carded for a bad foul early on and had to be careful from then on, not bad but needs to get better.
4/22 Garay 7
In charge of the defence and kept Dzeko quiet, solid at the back.
5/22 Fernandez 6
Not a poor performance by any means but lacked that sparkle from full-back.
6/22 Campagnaro 4
Very little on offer and rightly removed at half-time.
7/22 Rodriguez 4
Substitued at halftime after ineffective first 45.
8/22 Mascherano 8
Argentina’s best player in the first half and good throughout second. Solid, strong and even had a couple of half decent efforts at goal
9/22 Aguero 6
Nowhere near his flowing best but good enough to cause problems at times.
10/22 Messi 8
Very quiet night for first hour but produced the only real moment of true quality with his quite sublime solo goal to win the match.
11/22 Di Maria 6
Some nice flicks and tricks but no real attacking thrust.
12/22 Bosnia: Begovic 7
Solid between the posts but helpless for either goal. Looked comfortable throughout and will be important in future games.
13/22 Mujdza 6
Did fine without really making any highlights or mistakes.
14/22 Kolasinac 6
Very unlucky to have own-goal to his name, helpless for it. Recovered well and played his part in defence after early mistake.
15/22 Besic 6
Like all the Bosnian back-four, did well to keep Argentina to relatively little chances, couldn’t get close to Messi for his goal though.
16/22 Bicakcic 6
Had a chance right at the death to put a good ball in but looked too tired. Did well in defence for the most part.
17/22 Pjanic 7
Played well in attack and got back to help defence throughout, good performance.
18/22 Spahic 5
Picked up a yellow card for bad foul but coped OK in midfield.
19/22 Hajrovic 8
Had several efforts at goal and was Bosnia’s best player. Needed that slight bit of extra quality to turn his chances into goals but did very well.
20/22 Dzeko 5
Tough task as the lone striker and never really had a sniff at goal. Bosnia need him to be better the their next two games.
21/22 Misimovic 5
Busy but ultimately not a major impact on the game.
22/22 Lulic 7
Did well up and down the wing and can be happy with his performance. Good pass for Ibisevic’s goal.
Argentina’s relentless pace was rendering the opposition irrelevant. The goal will have been all the more pleasing for manager Sabella because, before the game, he had highlighted the European team’s aerial physicality as a particular concern. Yet Argentina simply bullied them back.
The goal, and the beginning period of the match, also made the Argentinian manager’s surprising switch to 5-3-2 initially look like the right tactical decision. That formation has drawn parallels between Messi and Diego Maradona in 1986, given that it was Carlos Bilardo, then the Argentina manager, who effectively invented that formation in order to maximise the potential of the older Argentinian legend.
Messi was the focal point of this formation last night. This is expected to be his World Cup, his defining statement. Yet he was initially rather quiet.
Messi managed to get on the ball a few times in the opening minutes, only to then be clattered in a tackle by the industrious Muhamed Besic.
The Barcelona playmaker did not exactly show the same willingness to be so abrasive himself. At one point when Bosnia and Herzegovina finally got some possession, the ball was being played around just a few yards from Messi. Rather than actually go and press, he let it go, which led to the European side’s first attack of the game. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero was forced into a save, and Argentina had due warning.
Moments later, Miralem Pjanic went close with a free-kick. The fact that Bosnia had these early chances suggested that this game was perhaps going to be a little closer than some imagined, not least after the opening few minutes. For much of the first half, in fact, it was arguably Bosnia who had the better of the ball. Messi could not quite get his foot on it enough, and only offered two real runs of note early in the first half, before being crowded out on both occasions.
His apparent drop-off in form was reflective of Argentina’s, as the early energy started to fade. Their play no longer matched the buzz of their many fans in the stands inside the Maracana.
The 5-3-2 formation suddenly did not appear quite as good a fit as it first seemed, and Bosnia and Herzegovina certainly were not holding back. On 41 minutes they were almost back on level terms, as a thunderous Senad Lulic effort brought an excellent save from Romero.
Safet Susic’s Bosnia side were not intimidated by the occasion of a first World Cup game, but instead seemed emboldened by it, as is often the case with such teams. Similarly, they were definitely not deflated by the early goal.
Sabella used the half-time interval to make two substitutions and revert to a 4-3-3. Fernando Gago came on for Hugo Campagnaro, and Gonzalo Higuain was also introduced.
It had become clear that Sabella’s tactic of using four players to mark Bosnia striker Edin Dzeko, as was the case in the first half, was a waste of resources. Sabella sought to rectify it.
If the dynamic of the team immediately changed, the dynamic of the game did not. Bosnia and Herzegovina kept coming, kept causing Argentina problems.
The Bosnians were physical, well organised but perhaps just lacking penetration.
Messi finally provided some of his own with a brilliant run 10 minutes into the second half. In the type of move the playmaker has become famous for, he weaved through three defenders before drawing more towards him then slipping the ball through to Sergio Aguero.
However, the Manchester City striker was not at his best either, as his shot which blazed over the bar illustrated. Having barely touched the ball in the first half, he clearly had not found his range in the second half.
It soon became apparent, however, that Messi had not lost his ability to raise his game. On 65 minutes, the No 10 picked the ball up on the edge of the box, delicately maneouvred the ball into space, and then drove it in off the post.
The entire Maracana chanted his name, and Messi himself let out a roar. It was Messi’s first World Cup goal since 2006.
He suddenly looked a different player in a different mood. With 10 minutes to go, he burst through the centre of the pitch, looking to play a one-two before just being denied his second of the game by a sliding Bosnian body.
Moments later, though, it was 2-1. Bosnian substitute Vedad Ibisevic slipped the ball under Romero to give Argentina’s defence something to think about.
At the very least, Messi and Sabella can think about the next game feeling a bit more comfortable.