Argentina escapes late scare, defeats Bosnia-Herzegovina in opener

Argentina opens 2014 World Cup with victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina behind Lionel Messi's second-half winner

Argentina opens 2014 World Cup with victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina behind Lionel Messi's second-half winner

Argentina labored to a 2-1 win against World Cup debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina in Rio de Janeiro thanks to an own goal and a moment of magic from star Lionel Messi. Sead Kolasinac’s 2nd minute howler paced the Albicelestes, but it was Messi’s 65th minute goal that proved vital after the American-educated Vedad Ibisevic scored late to make the South American giants sweat.

Just 19 years ago, Bosnia were the equivalent of a club side, with barely enough players to field a team. Sunday, they made their bow on the grandest stage. They aimed not to embarrass themselves against a tournament favorite. They certainly did not, as in defeat, they showed that while they lack refinement, they have to be taken seriously.

That might seem unbelievable given that Argentina needed only two minutes to score, gifted that own goal by Kolasinac. Mensur Mujdza set up the fatal kick, fouling Sergio Aguero out wide left, and Angel di Maria flighted the kick in, to be nodded on by Marcus Rojo. Kolasinac was caught wrong-footed and the ball clipped off his left foot and past a helpless Asmir Begovic to the near post. It was the third own goal of this young tournament: more have been scored to date here than were scored in the entire 2010 edition. And it was the worst possible start for the debutants, sending the Maracana into rapture as an overwhelmingly pro-Argentina crowd celebrated.

But Bosnia were not cowed, and you soon got the sense that had they enjoyed a bit better luck at the outset this game might have had a different result. Showing more than just, Bosnia came streaming back and Izet Hajrovic nearly tied it up ten minutes later when he latched on to a long ball, forcing Sergio Romero into a brave dive to take it off his laces.

Bosnia’s poise was in evidence on both sides of the ball. The Argentines boasted both more individual skill and experience but Bosnia were able to present a wall of blue shirts -- and then showed pace on the counter. That raw speed showed why Alejandro Sabella had set up Argentina with three men at the back: even with Edin Dzeko as a lone runner, Bosnia showed a surprising amount of bite. When Sendad Lulic sent in a bullet header off a Miralem Pjanic corner just before the break, you sense that if not for Romero, Argentina could be in serious trouble.

And when Argentina got off a clean shot -- such as Javier Mascherano’s jab on the half-hour mark -- Asmir Begovic was always behind it to parry away.  True, they declined to wander forward much after they took the lead, content to play a conservative game.

But after the break, realizing that his side was far too complacent, Sabella sent on Fernando Gago to push Messi a bit further forward, and yanked Hugo Campagnaro for Gonzalo Higuain to shift to a more orthodox 4-3-3. It took twenty minutes for the changes to take effect, but they worked.

In the 65th, Higuain served up a fine ball and Messi tracked from right to left, channeling Arjen Robben. With one stroke, he slammed the ball onto Begovic’s post, the rebound falling behind the keeper and in. Messi then ran screaming towards the stands: it had been eight years since his last goal at a World Cup, and only his second ever and you could see what it meant.

But the game wasn’t over. With five minutes left to play, Bosnia finally broke through. The one-time St. Louis University star Ibisevic was sprung free and the forward slotted the ball through Romero’s legs to make Argentina sweat on the result. It was a fine bit of movement from the forward but an indication that Argentina’s defense is very sloppy. The goal was Bosnia’s first-ever at the Cup, and it was no less than they deserved on the night.

Argentina might be punished for their failings later on this tournament. They don’t have a convincing central defense and they could really use some one to hold up the play. And what of Messi? Aside from his goal, he was largely invisible during the game, constantly running down blind alleys. But the fact that he was both able to score and win the game may finally lift some of the withering criticism he has faced in Argentina, a place where he is viewed less as a great player and more as someone who has under-delivered for his nation.

Argentina next face Iran at the Mineirao in six days time; Bosnia must regroup against a Nigerian side that looked very suspect in their warm-up match with the USA.

There were some ugly scenes before the match, with police deploying tear gas on approximately 200 protestors attempting to march to the Maracana. Gas wafted around the arena, but no injuries were reported. Smaller protests also took place in Brasilia and Porto Alegre. While anger remains high in Brazil over the cost of the Cup, the protests have not gathered the force and numbers seen during last summer’s Confederations Cup to date.

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