Nigeria vs Argentina match report World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi lands ‘from Jupiter’ to nestle in Argentinian hearts

Nigeria 2 Argentina 3

Estadio Beira Rio

His name was ringing out into the darkness on the long road home to Uruguaiana, on the Argentine border, and well beyond, last night. Lionel Messi’s compatriots had made the 11-hour trek by road to belong to this World Cup campaign in some small way, and for the tens of thousands who did not even step inside the stadium, the journey was worth it because of him.

“Messi is is from Jupiter. He is different. He is one hell of a player. You can’t take it away from him,” the Nigerian manager Stephen Keshi reflected in defeat. Messi’s relationship with his country has been a complicated one, ever since he left for Spain on an Aerolineas Argentinas jet as a 13-year-old. The Buenos Aires locals expect their nation’s stars to play for one of the city’s clubs before they leave. But in one hour of football Messi added to the real notion that this tournament will all boil down to a two-man shoot-out between Neymar and him. Single-handedly, the Barcelona men have borne their countries into the second round. They have both scored four goals at this World Cup.

Video: Nigeria vs Argentina match report

The Brazilians are ready for that match-up. Though the affection for Messi is something of a guilty secret in Sao Paulo, where shirts bearing his name are seen in a way that the detested Diego Maradona’s never were, Brazil feels its totemic player is the more complete of the two. But the Argentine is playing with an ease, conviction and a broad smile on his face. It will take something special to stop him travelling all the way to the Maracana on 13 July. Another absorbing test of Louis van Gaal’s quality may lie ahead, with the Dutch are scheduled to meet the resurgent force of nature in a semi-final.

 

The suspicion remains, as it has throughout these past three weeks, that flaws exist around him. None in blue and white could hold a candle to his presence. No other member of the so-called “fantastic four” – Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria – has found the net in this competition. The defence looked suspect. “We will try to make it more robust,” said coach Alex Sabella. “If you do that in round of 16 you have to go home if you do a bad job.” But the performance suggested that this nation is ready to unfurl itself on the knock-out stage, for all that.

The Nigerians began far too respectfully and Messi gave thanks for some space. Never before have both teams scored in the first five minutes of a game at a World Cup finals and Messi was right to cast a glance to the heavens when he provided the first of them. It was a pinball goal – a shot from di Maria in the left hand channel rebounding off the base of the post, back on to it off the back of Vincent Enyeama’s head and sitting up for Messi to blast high into the net.

The African reply was breathtaking, Michael Babaunde unfurling a ball to Ahmed Musa of CSKA Moscow, who cut inside to crack an angled shot well beyond Sergio Romero when Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta allowed him fractionally too much leeway. But the game belonged to Argentina, even then. There was more creative potential for them than the Iranians had permitted on Saturday and El Enano (“the little man”) as the players like to call Messi, navigated an easy path. There was his 20th-minute free kick that Jon Obi Mikel almost diverted past Enyeama. The 43rd-minute free-kick that the 31-year-old Lille keeper leapt to parry away. And then the golden strike, a minute into first-half injury-time, which he did not even bother leaping for. It was his 10th goal in his last eight appearances for the national side.

Those who next lie in the Argentinians’ way will certainly take encouragement from the way the Nigerians came back again – less cowed after the interval. Sabella’s central defenders were bisected and out of position when Musa ran on to Emmanuel Emenike’s pass and threaded the ball inside Romero’s left post.  But fortune still favoured Argentina in their next rally. A corner by substitute Ezequiel Lavezzi – on after Sergio Aguero limped off after 37 minutes with a thigh injury which was heavily strapped up last night – ricocheted off Ezequiel Garay’s head and in off the knee of Marcos Rojo.

Sabella was able to withdraw Messi to preserve him for the workload to come. Nigeria tweaked the formation from 4-4-2 to 4-1-4-1 as the game evolved into a form of experimentation. Enyeama is exuberant but created some chaos at the back for the side who will face the French next. The Africans also lost Michael Babatunde for the tournament, too, in freak circumstances. He was taken off on a stretcher with a broken hand, which has ended his World Cup, when hit by the ball.

The challenge was still not extinguished. The dangerous Musa cut into the left hand side of the box and delivered a shot which was well blocked by Zabaleta. Efe Ambrose, the right-back, penetrated the opposite side of the area but Garay deflected his shot into the side netting.

Messi was cocooned at the heart of the Argentine nation, last night. He was asked: Why did he want to be a world champion? “Because there is nothing more beautiful than seeing the entire joy of the entire country,” he replied.

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