Do not be deceived by the scoreline. The M and M show may not have produced the feast of goals we anticipated but Diego Maradona's Argentina did enough last night to suggest they will be around for some time to come – courtesy of the coach's heir apparent, Lionel Messi.
This fixture was as big as any group game could be in terms of global interest, positively dripping with intrigue and anticipation given Maradona's unique status and whether he could at last galvanise his team of glittering galacticos after such a troublesome qualifying campaign.
Having only just squeezed into the finals, Argentina arrived here amid serious scepticism about whether Maradona was the right man to carry their challenge because of his inexperience in the hotseat and the baggage that has long accompanied him on and off the field.
Constantly meddling with the squad and using more than 100 players hardly made for continuity and yesterday was all about which Argentina would turn up. As expected, Maradona unleashed his trio of big-hitters with Messi playing just behind Carlos Tevez and Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain in a salivating forward line. Between them the dazzling trio netted more than 80 league goals for Barcelona, Manchester City and Real Madrid last term, sumptuous talent that made it hard to believe that Argentina had only just stumbled over the finish line in qualifying.
Without the injured John Obi Mikel, the unpredictable Super Eagles, making their fourth appearance in the finals but never having progressed beyond the last 16, had their work cut out. Their Swedish coach, Lars Lagerback, in the job for only three months, gave the task of containing the best strike force in the competition to Danny Shittu and Joseph Yobo of Bolton and Everton respectively. The pair were made to work overtime and until the last quarter, when Nigeria almost made Maradona's team pay for squandering a hatful of chances, they were second best.
Both teams took to the field amid a deafening din, Ellis Park no less atmospheric than Friday's opener across town, bathed in a sea of Nigerian green and Argentinian blue, the latter matching the hue of the fading afternoon sky. And what a start we had, Messi's sublime skill bringing a flying save out of Vincent Enyeama, an early contender for goalkeeper of the tournament. Nigeria put two men on the line for Juan Sebastian Veron's resultant corner but they did not bargain on the arrival of another ex-Manchester United player as Gabriel Heinze came up from the back to power home an unstoppable header.
A bending effort from Messi brought another save from Nigeria's inspired keeper, this time low to his right, and he was quickly off his line again to thwart the much-prized Higuain. Chinedu Obasi produced a couple of moments of danger for Nigeria but they just could not stop the Barcelona magician whose curling drive seemed destined for the top corner before Enyeama – understood to be a target of new West Ham manager Avram Grant – again rescued his team.
Afterwards, Maradona praised his star player: "Football wouldn't be nice without seeing Messi with the ball. He did some great things," the coach said, before going on to admit that there was plenty of room for improvement. "They [Nigeria] let us off ... If we'd taken our chances the course of the match would have been different. This was an important step we took [but] we have to improve a lot of things."
Cheekily, 24 years after his infamous "Hand of God" goal, Argentina's coach had pleaded for fair play from the officials and described Nigeria as "rough and hard". That was a trifle unfair on the Super Eagles, who passed the ball with fluency but simply didn't have the attacking potency to trouble Maradona's men – until late on, that is, first when Marseille left-back Taye Taiwo's shot missed by no more than a coat of paint, then when Kalu Uche ballooned the ball over from 10 yards with his left shin.
Maradona's last public pronouncement before bringing his team to South Africa was that he would run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if they lift the trophy next month. On yesterday's display, Argentina's most outspoken and controversial sporting icon may have to keep this most brazen of promises.
Bookings: Argentina: Gutierrez. Nigeria: Haruna.
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (Germany)
Man of the match: EnyeamaReuse content