A day on from his 27th birthday, Lionel Messi continued to ensure that he leaves his mark on the 2014 World Cup with two more goals to help Argentina to a stirring 3-2 win over Nigeria and claim top spot in Group F.
Messi scored at the beginning and the end of the first half; the first an emphatic follow-up after Angel di Maria had struck a post and then with a brilliantly precise free-kick from distance. In between, Nigeria, who progress alongside Argentina despite defeat, made it an action-packed first five minutes of the contest by producing an immediate equalizer from Ahmed Musa. The scenario was repeated at the start of the second half. This time it was Nigeria that scored first to get level, again through livewire winger Musa, before Marcos Rojo bundled in a corner at the other end.
Once again, though, it is Messi who will take the biggest plaudits. Having scored in all three of Argentina’s group matches, the Barcelona star now moves onto four for the tournament and level with home favorite Neymar in the battle for the Golden Boot. Of course, it is the World Cup trophy that both men are really focused on. And the signs continue to be that Messi will have to maintain his superb performances to deliver it to his country for the first time since 1986.
Already qualified for the last 16 and needing just a point to ensure they progressed as group winners, Argentina certainly showed more attacking threat than they did in a lackluster win over Iran last time out. Still, it was Messi who provided the decisive moments. An injury that forced Sergio Aguero off in the first half coupled with a defense that again looked suspect, only increases the chances that he will have to continue to do so.
As expected, Nigeria’s 1-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina last time out proved decisive. Iran fell to defeat against Bosnia in their final match to ensure that Stephen Keshi’s African champions would progress regardless of their own result. That achievement was unfortunately marred somewhat by midfielder Michel Babatunde suffering an apparent broken arm when being struck by the ball in the second half.
Nigeria’s resilience had been impressive in keeping out Bosnia four days ago, but it took just three minutes for their backline to be breached this time around. Javier Mascherano’s quick pass from midfield got Di Maria through on goal and, while the Real Madrid midfielder’s shot incredibly took a double ricochet off the post via Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, Messi was on hand to emphatically slam home into the roof of the net.
After some devastating play on the attacking end, Argentina’s other trademark -- less then decisive defending at the other -- came to the fore. Just over a minute after going ahead, Argentina were badly caught out in transition as Michel Babatunde found Musa down the left and, with Pablo Zabaleta unable to get close enough to him, the CSKA Moscow man cut back onto his right foot and curled a stunning shot into the far side of the net.
After that frenetic start, the pace of the match perhaps predictably dropped. Messi’s fine ball through to Gonzalo Higuain failed to be capitalized upon, but it was right before the interval that the game’s star man brought the masses of Argentina fans who had crossed the border into Porto Alegre back to their feet.
Messi had only just forced Enyeama to get across his goal and turn a well-hit free-kick wide when, from a more advantageous central position, he came out on top in their personal duel that had picked up where it left off when the sides met at the same stage of the 2010 World Cup. From 30 yards Messi picked out the top corner with a curling effort that left Enyeama unable to get over in time.
Although halted by the half-time interval, Nigeria and Musa again had a quick answer. Two minutes into the second half, Argentina’s defense was too easily dragged out of position by striker Emmanuel Emenike receiving Musa’s pass with his back to goal, showing good strength and then playing the ball back to the onrushing Musa in the vacated space. The lightning-quick Musa showed impressive composure when in the box to wrong-foot Sergio Romero in the Argentina goal with a low finish.
The pattern of the game continued with Nigeria’s defense falling short from an Ezequiel Lavezzi corner to allow Rojo to put the ball into the net at the back post with his knee. By that point the edge had already been taken out of the game by Nigeria likely knowing that Iran were behind against Bosnia and their place in the last 16 was all-but secure.
The intensity in closing down having dipped, chances continued to arrive in a most open contest. Musa came close on more than once occasion to completing his hat-trick, while Argentina may be disappointed that they were unable to register more goals.