If Lionel Messi's tender frame really is irreversibly tired by the travails of a long season – as Argentina's fitness coach, Fernando Signorini, claimed this week – there was scant sign of it today as he inspired Argentina to a winning, if not entirely convincing, start to their World Cup campaign.
Messi's incisions into Nigeria's half were as sharp and deep as a executioner's blade. He created chances for his team-mates and for himself — and, for perhaps the first time under Diego Maradona, looked as at ease in an Argentina shirt as in the claret and blue of Barcelona.
True, Messi didn't score, but that was largely down to the brilliance of Nigeria's goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama — later named man of the match – who blocked, tipped and smothered almost everything that Argentina threw at him. Only Gabriel Heinze's sixth-minute header seeped through and that, ultimately, proved the difference between the sides in an exciting game that featured 31 shots on goal.
You guessed it was going to be that open from Argentina's teamsheet, Maradona risking a front three of Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuaín and Messi, with Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastián Verón sitting and the Newcastle winger Jonás Gutiérrez as an unlikely right-back. As a statement of intent it couldn't have been clearer. Argentina were going to attack, and damn the consequences.
Such a high-wire approach nearly cost them inside three minutes as Gutiérrez, sucked in towards his centre-backs, let a long cross fly over his head to Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi — and then pawed unconvincingly as the Nigerian winger jinked past him and shot beyond the far post.
Argentina's response was almost instant. They should have opened the scoring within a minute when Messi danced past three players with a drop of the shoulder and a series of subtle feints to set up Higuaín, who side-footed wide from three yards. Then Enyeama tipped Messi's shot over the bar. But from Verón's resulting corner, Heinze – criminally unmarked by the penalty spot – headed home via the faintest of touches off Chidi Odiah's head. Argentina were 1-0 up and flying.
After the frenetic start, the game calmed, but the pattern remained the same, Argentina pressing and having the better chances, Nigeria dangerous on the break. But by half-time Maradona's side could have been three ahead but for the brilliance of Enyeama. He saved from Higuaín one on one with his knees. Then, towards the end of the first half, something even better: Messi took a free-kick on the left touchline, exchanged a 25-yard one-two with Angel Di María before, with minimal backlift, clipping a curling shot towards the top corner that was somehow finger-tipped around the post with the wrong hand.
It was a divine save, inspired – Enyeama later claimed – by divine intervention. "It was God that did it for me," he said. "I had watched Messi in a few La Liga matches but God is my secret, my friend, he makes the difference in my life – he made me so calm out there."
Argentina continued to press for the second goal, with Messi providing the thrust — if not the end reward. He exchanged a one-two with Verón, scampered into the box but guided his shot-flick just wide; ended a four-on-two by guiding a shot past the post; then, late on, saw Enyeama deny him when one on one.
Nigeria, frustrated at being unable to stop Messi, resorted to fouling him — on the touchline Maradona demanded yellow cards to be shown, kicked chewing gum in disgust and growled at Fifa's officials, but only Lukman Haruna was booked for a late challenge on the Argentina No10.
But, towards the end, Argentina nearly paid for their near-misses.
Taye Taiwo was allowed to encroach into their penalty box unhindered before his skidding shot went just wide, Yakubu Aiyegbeni's 25-yard pile-driver was fisted unconvincingly by Sergio Romero, and — not long before the end — the substitute Kalu Uche was able to exchange passes with Yakubu before looping his shot over from 12 yards.
Argentina were hanging on, with Gutiérrez looking particularly at sea, but they survived to claim a victory their manager insisted they deserved. "This was an important step today but we still have to improve a lot," he said. "Can we win the World Cup? I don't know – I'm not a magician. But we fear nobody. If we had scored three of the five great chances we had everyone would be saying wonderful things about Argentina."
"I am very proud of the players," he added. "I still feel like a fan when I am on the bench, but the Argentinian people are accustomed to how I am."
Nigeria's coach, Lars Lagerback, however, claimed his side were unlucky to lose. "We lost concentration for the goal and we were punished but we deserved at least a draw," he said. "I don't know if Argentina will be the champions as there are many good teams in this World Cup."
True. But for all Argentina's defensive frailties, they still have Messi. And the abiding image of this game will be of Argentina's No10 scampering past opponents like the fastest kid at school evading his pursuers in a game of tag; somehow being faster with the ball than without it. "Football wouldn't be beautiful without Messi touching the ball as he does," agreed Maradona. "It's something rare."
And beautiful too. But he will surely need help from elsewhere if Argentina are to linger deep into this competition.
Fans' network members have their sayMariano Prunes, twitter.com/frescoybatata, Argentina
A morale-boosting, if nervy, win. Argentina largely dominated but failed to score the second goal that would have effectively closed the game. A disappointing Nigeria, a shadow of the great sides of the 90s, were kept in the game by their goalkeeper and still caused troubles down the flanks. The referee did not give us a penalty, but at least spared a yellow for Javier Mascherano late in the game. Diego Maradona should have made substitutions much earlier. Inevitably, Lionel Messi looked better than the other 21 players put together. He deserved more from this game. South Korea will present a much tougher task.
Marks out of 10: Romero 6; Gutiérrez 5, Demichelis 5, Samuel 5, Heinze 7; Verón 6 (Rodríguez 75 5), Mascherano 6, Di María 4 (Burdisso 85 6); Tevez 6, Higuaín 4 (Milito 79 6), Messi 8
Ken Chigbo, twitter.com/KenChigbo, Nigeria
The better team won. In fact, 1-0 was an injustice to Argentina's dominance. Only an inspired Vincent Enyeama in goal spared us some severe embarrassment. He made at least five top-drawer saves. We just followed our usual laissez-faire approach to the game - letting quality players have all the time in the world to pick us apart. Argentina had so much space and they kept possession very well. We didn't close them down. The worst culprits were Dickson Etuhu and Chidi Odiah in terms of giving away possession. Haruna Lukman, the only guy with a bit of imagination, looked a bit out of his depth. I expected Lars Lagerback to have made some improvements in our set-pieces, both defending and attacking. For the goal, Victor Obinna left his man free from Verón's corner. I think we should beat Greece on Thursday and set up things for the last game against South Korea.
Marks out of 10: Enyeama 9; Odiah 4, Shittu 6, Yobo 6, Taiwo 4 (Uche 74 6); Kaita 4, Lukman 5, Etuhu 3, Obasi 5 (Odemwingie 60 6); Yakubu 5, Obinna 3 (Martins 52 6)
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