Messi shines as Argentina wins Group F; Nigeria advances to final 16
JUN 25, 2014 2:00p ET
Lionel Messi scored twice and Marcos Rojo tipped home a corner kick to lead Argentina past Nigeria 3-2 and finish the group stage with a perfect record. It was a tighter, more open contest than we had expected, and Nigeria certainly showed far more here than they had in previous outings.
Argentina await its opponents from Group E, most likely to be either Switzerland or Ecuador. Despite the loss, the Super Eagles also snuck into the knockout round; barring a reversal of epic proportions in the late games, they will face France in the Round of 16. In the other group game of the day, Bosnia and Herzegovina won their first game at the World Cup, 3-1 over Iran. Both bowed out.
It was a surprisingly open match in Porto Alegre, with Messi and Ahmed Musa trading goals like prize-fighters in the ring. Messi opened the match up after only three minutes when Fernando Gago picked out Angel di Maria with a searching ball, only to see the Real Madrid man hit the post. But Messi was there, lurking, and he roofed the rebound into the top of Vincent Enyeama’s net.
But if there was any feeling this was going to be a coronation for the South Americans, that was quickly dispelled sixty seconds later. Off the kick off, Musa took the ball in stride, cut back to the right side, and let loose with a powerful right-footed strike that left Sergio Romero stunned. It was a ruthless finish and it set the tone for what would become a struggle in the middle of the field, with Argentina pressing down the flanks, and trying to force Enyeama to come off his line, and the Super Eagles responding on the counter.
Argentina still do not look like a team running through all the gears so there was a sigh of relief from Buenos Aires when Messi stuck in his second of the day just before halftime, sharply clipping in a free kick that left the keeper rooted to the turf. It was a strike of the highest order, so fine that midway in flight, Enyeama simply stopped to admire it. There was no way he, or any other mortal, was getting to it.
But after the break, Nigeria roared back, again behind Musa, and again almost off the kickoff. Emmanuel Emenike and him played the one-two and Musa finished with an easy chip to the far corner. It was a simple goal, but well-taken, and it set us up for a wild finale.
Di Maria forced the issue immediately, forcing Eneyama into a strong save that was pushed out for a corner. Messi whipped it in, Ezequiel Garay headed it on and Rojo bundled it over the line with his knee.
Messi would not get the chance for his hat-trick as manager Alejandro Sabella, looking ahead, rested his star for the final half hour, and he departed to ovations from both sets of fans. Ezequiel Lavezzi would then form the focal point of the attack, forcing a solid stop from Enyeama with about ten to play, taking a good volley on the turn that the keeper was lucky to get his entire body behind. Musa had a chance late to draw Nigeria level, but Manchester City defender Pablo Zabaleta got in a vital block to clear it off the line.
Argentina’s triumph did not come without a cost. Sergio Aguero had to come off early once again with a suspected muscle injury, and there are now real questions over whether or not he will appear again in this World Cup.
And if there is a concern for Argentina it is that after an early flurry, they have tended to settle into lethargy. Without Messi they are at best an average side, lacking guile and creativity, and with serious deficiencies in the back. Often, Javier Mascherano was caught alone when Nigeria countered, with Gago playing so far forward that he was unable to provide cover. That is a major weakness that a better team will look to exploit.
And there was more pain for Nigeria as well. A shopping center in the nation’s capital of Abuja was bombed during the match, leaving 21 dead according to the Associated Press. It is unclear if the bombing was related to public viewing parties around the World Cup. Public viewing areas for this tournament have been targeted in Nigeria by the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram.