Wednesday, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Lionel Messi scored two goals to lead Argentina to a hard fought draw with Nigeria who accomplished its objective of progressing from Group F in the World Cup.
The Argentines, who have looked off kilter for their first two matches, needing some Messi magic to pull through what should have been easy opposition, came out firing on all cylinders today. At the three minute mark a dash down the left wing by Angel di Maria saw his hard left-footed shot parried on to the goal post by Nigerian keeper, Vincent Enyeama. The long rebound came out to the middle of the box where the trailing Messi roofed it for the opening score.
But the Nigerians reacted swiftly, scoring a minute later on a great move by striker Ahmed Musa who placed a nice shot from the left side of the box to the opposite post leaving Argentine keeper, , no chance. The game was four minutes old and the teams were tied at 1-1.
With Argentina clicking on all cylinders their only worry came at the 36th minute when Sergio Arguero could not continue due to what seemed a muscular injury, since he dropped in the middle of the field as Nigeria was about to take a free kick near the Argentine box. He was substituted by Ezequiel Lavezzi.
The half continued with the same Argentine pressure but with Enyeama in inspirational form, making save after save. Finally, at the first minute of stoppage time, when else, Messi takes a free kick to the right of goal, a perfect spot for him. Enyeama yelled at his wall to move to the right to cover Messi’s favorite side but the wall remained where it was, too far left, leaving the right side of goal open. The keeper yelled until the whistle blew but since he got no reaction from his teammates he simply positioned himself at the center of the goal to try to cover both sides. Messi curled the ball into the open right side of the goal for the score, while Enyeama disgustedly flayed at it. The half ended.
The second half, amazingly began the same way. It seemed the contestants knew Bosnia was beating Iran in the other game and thus the Nigerians went all out and scored in the first minute knowing a victory gave them a chance to finish top of the group. Musa again converted, this time off a nice give and go with Emmanuel Emenike. Game tied at 2-2 at the 46th minute.
But the mirror of the first half occurred as within four minutes a corner kick saw Ezequiel Garay head toward goal and the ball ricochets off the knee of Marcos Rojo for the Argentine score. Argentina 3, Nigeria 2. And the pace simply intensified as neither team figured it had anything to gain by not scoring and Brazil and Germany to avoid if they could stay on their side of the bracket, so they both went all out.
At the sixty minute mark, Argentine coach, Alejandro Sabella, substituted Messi and brought in Ricardo Alvarez. The substitution was interesting since it gave the star a rest, which with his team ahead was not an unexpected thing to do. But as the game progressed the second nature of the modification emerged.
Sabella urged his men on in an attempt to have them feed off the energy of their best performance in the tournament, and to do so without Messi. The reaction was positive and team reacted very well to being able to play without their inimitable talismanic leader. This performance, and in particular these next thirty minutes, might just be the tonic that wakes up this sleeping giant of a team and sets them going for the next round.
Although the game ended with the same score, the intensity was sustained up until about the 85th minute, at which time both teams seemed to know the result would stand and both would progress, albeit with Argentina getting the preferred bracket location. So the pace slowed and the passes were less incisive, if the tackling remained strong when anyone moved the ball too aggressively. The final whistle blew and the players, judging by the warm embraces and smiles exchanged, seemed to know they had been in a good, tough match.