Lionel Messi made a strong, sublime early statement of his intentions to leave his mark on the 2014 World Cup with a brilliant goal to secure a 2-1 victory for Argentina over Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the first game of the competition to be played at the famed Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Messi honored the surroundings with an equally grand piece of skill.
Having registered just one goal in his previous two visits to a World Cup, the pressure has been on Messi to deliver on soccer’s grandest stage as he has with such regularity at club level for Barcelona. The way he sauntered past two helpless Bosnian defenders on the edge of the box in the 65th minute before placing a shot perfectly into the net suggests he is ready to do just that.
It turned out to be a vital goal, too. In their first ever game at a World Cup, Bosnia got their first goal with through substitute Vedad Ibisevic six minutes remaining to provide the contest tension until the end.
The final whistle signaled an opening three points and, coupled with their talisman getting on the score sheet, provided reason for coach Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella to smile. But it was a match that will also give him much to ponder. The decision to go for an unfamiliar five-man defense at the start produced a labored first-half performance, despite it seeing Argentina take the lead through Sead Kolasinac’s third-minute own goal.
Bringing on Gonzalo Higuain and Fernando Gago and reverting to their familiar shape helped both Argentina and Messi in the second half. Now far more fluid going forward, Messi had the chance to flourish and did just that. Still, the weak defense that Sabella’s initial system had been designed to protect, was exposed to allow Bosnia a route back. Getting the balance right will be key to Argentina’s hopes of lifting their first World Cup since Diego Maradona inspired them to the trophy in 1986.
After fitness concerns about Gago and Higuain leading into the tournament, both found themselves beginning it on the bench. It meant veteran Maxi Rodriguez taking a spot in midfield and Higuain’s place taken by an extra central defender, Hugo Campagnaro. A high-tempo opening together with an early goal bred optimism. It was Messi’s free-kick from the left that was met by a mistimed header from Marcos Rojo and struck the left knee of unfortunate Bosnia defender Kolasinac before squeezing past Asmir Begovic in goal.
But Argentina failed to build on that lead. It appeared all the talk of the weak defense that could potentially prevent a brilliant band of attackers from lifting the World Cup had also been weighing heavily on the mind of Sabella. The two wing-backs, Rojo and Zabaleta, more often than not simply made it a back line of five, while Javier Mascherano added further protection for the center-backs in front of them. Sergio Aguero was isolated up front and with no playmaker to link the team, Messi came deep and repeatedly got crowded out by an impressive Bosnia midfield.
With Bosnia coach Safet Susic more predictably having also tempered his side’s attacking mentality by leaving out Ibisevic in preference for an extra midfielder, the first-half was perhaps the least inspiring 45 minutes of action in this thrilling World Cup to date. It only briefly came to life late on when Sergio Romero, a further vulnerability at the back, made a smart save to deny Senad Lulic’s header.
To Sabella’s credit, he acknowledged after just 45 minutes that his plan was not working. Gago and Higuain entered and the improvement was instant. Gago supplied the crisper, more incisive passing and Higuain provided another player in attack for with which Messi could link. Messi twice found space on the edge of the box and supplied Aguero with passes that the Manchester City striker might have done better with.
The next time Messi got similar space he went it alone, to spectacular effect. Surging forward down the inside right channel, Messi played a quick exchange of passes with Higuain, before gliding past a line of Bosnian defenders and directing a shot on his wand of a left foot past Begovic. Messi was now enjoying himself and his delightful lofted pass for Higuain was close to providing another goal.
Instead, Susic’s decision to go back to the two-man strike force which served him so well to lead Bosnia to their first World Cup made them more of a threat. Edin Dzeko now had a partner in Ibisevic and the man born in St. Louis soon had Bosnia’s maiden World Cup goal. The excellent Lulic supplied a through ball that badly caught out Argentina center-back Federico Fernandez, as Ibisevic ran in behind before his low finish somehow squirmed through Romero.
Ahead of their next games -- Argentina face Iran and Bosnia take on Nigeria -- both coaches will have to work out just how much they can afford to play to their teams’ obvious strengths in attack.