Messi of old looks ready for a fight
Something is stirring in the Argentina camp. Something small, something special, something that keeps vomiting everywhere whenever it gets nervous. But Lionel Messi has little to be nervous about now. He is growing in strength with every game. Two more goals against Nigeria took his tally to four, bringing him level with Brazilian golden boy Neymar. The game's afoot.
Messi's poor first half performance against Bosnia-Herzegovina was masked by a goal of stunning quality in the second. Another flat display against Iran was ignored because the Barcelona man swirled in a goal so beautiful that it returned home to find dozens of marriage proposals from wealthy businessmen piled up on the doormat. But Messi's all-around game was better against Nigeria, he looked calmer and more at ease with himself. And of course, he scored twice.
It hasn't been an easy year for Messi. Alongside obvious factors like missing out on silverware, for both team and individual, there was the death of Tito Villanova, Barcelona's hugely popular former manager and coach. There was the distraction of his much publicised tax issues and there have been, for the first time in so long, niggling injury problems that reduced him to 46 appearances in all competitions, a none-too-shabby total, but his lowest for six years. You sense that he needs this World Cup as much as his team needs him. Finally, he looks capable of fulfilling everyone's ambitions. Coach Alejandro Sabella was even able to withdraw him on the hour, denying him a hat trick, but keeping him fit and fresh for the second round clash against Switzerland.
For a World Cup that has given us so many surprises, you wonder now if it might slowly turn into the battle we all expected. Brazil versus Argentina. Messi versus Neymar. If it does, both men look ready for the challenge.
A word though for Nigeria, who had the temerity to oppose what seemed a relentless Argentine parade. Stephen Keshi's team were subjected to intense criticism, with some justification, after their dire goalless draw with Iran, but they've responded superbly. A Bosnian side better than their scorelines suggest were put down by a single goal and Argentina were never allowed to relax, even when it became obvious that both teams were going through anyway. There's a lot of character in this team. They'll need every ounce of it against the French.
Not that the French did anything to heighten their reputation against Ecuador. Even when Antonio Valencia was sent off in the second half, Didier Deschamps' much-altered team were unable to make the breakthrough. There's certainly some strength in depth in their squad, but the ideal first XI that Deschamps had in his head is unlikely to have been dramatically altered by this display.
Hats off to Xherdan Shaqiri. Switzerland knew that they might have to win and win big, just in case of an Ecuador victory and the Bayern Munich playmaker took on the challenge single-handedly. A swift hat trick has propelled him to joint second in the top goalscorers table, albeit alongside six other people.
More pertinently, those clubs who were alerted to the sound of his please-come-and-buy-me shouts before the tournament have now seen what he can do under pressure. If Liverpool, thought to be the front runners, don't make a bid, someone else will soon.
The good news: Just a single point will book the United States' passage from one of the most difficult groups to an entirely winnable second round. The bad news: They have to take it from Germany. For all the talk of cosy agreements between old friends, don't expect Joachim Low to do Jurgen Klinsmann too many favours. The German FA are still stained by a similar scenario, played out with Austria in 1982 at the expense of Algeria. They won't want to be seen to make that mistake again. If the U.S. do this, they have do it the hard way. Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal must beat Ghana and beat them well if they're to have even a chance of surviving. Don't hold out much hope there either.
For the first time in this World Cup, Group H actually looks quite interesting. This miserable pool offered little in the way of entertainment until Algeria's rip-roaring victory over South Korea on Sunday, but every team has something to play for on the final day. Belgium need a point to seal top spot, and if they get it, it'll be a straight fight between Russia and Algeria for second. For all the permutations, ESPN FC's giant-brain-in-a-jar Dale Johnson has everything you need here.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.