Messi lifts Argentina past Nigeria
Three thoughts from Argentina's 3-2 win over Nigeria on Wednesday in Porto Alegre in Group F.
1. Higuain and Aguero are not jelling, Messi saves the day
It what was an exciting game, one of the positives for Argentina was that Angel Di María looked much sharper in the first half. After two explosive goals in two minutes from Lionel Messi and Ahmed Musa, for the first 15 minutes Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero looked OK, as well. But after that blistering start, things settled into a pattern that's become depressingly familiar for Argentina so far in Brazil; the attacking line, so freestyle in qualifying, isn't mobile enough. Higuain and Aguero, particularly, seemed to leave all the hard work to Messi.
Fortunately for them, the little genius delivered yet again for his country in this World Cup -- a hammer of an opening goal was followed by one of the best free kicks you will ever see, deliciously curled into the top corner. Aguero's exit through injury might prove a blessing in disguise for Argentina, too; Ezequiel Lavezzi looked like a man with a point to prove when he came on, and did more in one turn and run to the byline early in the second half than Aguero has managed all tournament. Ironically, after Messi's substitution -- presumably to reserve his energy for the knockout rounds -- Higuain looked a little more mobile; immediately postmatch, manager Alejandro Sabella said he'd seen some small improvements.
2. Musa stars for Nigeria
With two goals, one early in each half, Ahmed Musa would have been man of the match in many other games -- if it had not been for Messi. Surprisingly, to those who were watching Musa for the first time, these were just his sixth and seventh goals for Nigeria, in his 37th appearance. The first, a fourth-minute equaliser after Messi's second-minute opener, was finely taken; an absolute rocket that Sergio Romero in the Argentine goal could have done little about, but Musa was arguably given too much time to step inside by Pablo Zabaleta.
His second, early in the second half to make it 2-2, was a good finish at the end of a nice exchange of passes, but was characterised more than anything by Argentina's defence parting like the Red Sea. That shouldn't take away from how well Musa took the chances that were presented to him, though, and two goals against opposition the calibre of Argentina will add to his confidence going forward in this tournament. He could well have had a hat trick after a great turn inside, but Zabaleta threw himself in front of the shot to atone for his early error and managed to block it.
If Musa does gain confidence from this performance and pose a similar threat against Nigeria's next opponents, he could make a very dangerous foil for Peter Odemwingie in the Nigerian attack. In a World Cup that has seen very few sides look truly impressive in defence, that's a thought worth hanging on to for him and fans of his team. Musa looks like a man on a mission, and since the French defence hasn't looked the most secure so far, he could be one to watch in the next phase.
3. Blink and you missed it: quick-fire goals
Argentina scored first after two minutes, and their lead lasted just less than a minute and a half; Nigeria got a second equaliser early in the second half (after Messi's brilliant free kick), only for Argentina to take the lead for the third time three minutes later. Both sides seemed to have issues staying focused immediately after scoring, which doesn't bode well for the knockout stages.
As group winner, Argentina's most likely opponent is Ecuador or Switzerland, both of whom have shown enough in attack to suggest they could pose problems of their own to an Argentine back line that returned to its old uncertain ways against Nigeria. Nigeria themselves, meanwhile, look likely to play France, who've been one of the highest-scoring sides in the tournament. Both Argentina and Nigeria will need to work on their positioning and, perhaps, their nerves immediately after scoring -- although in fairness that is something that is shared by a lot of the teams on show at the World Cup -- because there won't be so much margin for error next time around.
Speaking to the TV cameras after the match, Messi described the two Nigerian goals as "a shame" from an Argentine perspective. He insisted the attacking play had improved -- a thought shared by Sabella -- but both men admitted the side can still improve both in attack and, perhaps more importantly with Messi in his current form, in defence. Wednesday's evidence suggested they must improve, particularly at crucial moments.