Magical Messi continues to rise
At the very least, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella could say someone else settled the game. It wasn't Lionel Messi who got the decisive goal; it wasn't quite so necessary for the playmaker to drag his team forward. Instead, left-back Marcos Rojo kneed home Ezequiel Lavezzi's corner, and Argentina eventually beat Nigeria 3-2.
It gave Sabella's men a flawless points record from the group stage, with three wins from three games in Group F, but they are far from a flawless team. Although the specific details may have changed, the wider reality remains the same. It is the same storyline around the team tipped as one of the favourites to lift the trophy next month and the developing narrative of this World Cup.
Argentina still have a fair few problems; Messi still goes a long way to solving them. The remarkable openness of their defending was in stark contrast to the clinical nature of the No. 10's finishing. Messi may not have been required to serve as the match winner -- unlike the previous two games against Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- but this fixture arguably emphasised that narrative and made it all the more relevant.
In fact, it may have provided ample evidence that he is properly growing into this tournament. Take the lightning-fast first goal, which arrived after just three minutes. This time there was no long wait; it was as if the manner and circumstances of Saturday's decisive strike against Iran have fully relaxed him. You could see it in the coolness of the strike.
As the ball bounced back toward the penalty spot from Angel Di Maria's shot, which had hit both the post and Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama's head, Messi sent it into the roof of the net with a volley of the purest delivery. There was almost a counterintuitive casualness about the way he powered it home, the ease of his execution contrasted with the actual difficulty of the finish. Given the flight of the ball, many players would have blazed it well over the bar when trying something similar. Not Messi, not someone of his talent. The forward kept it low enough, kept it precise and kept it true. It was the goal of a player getting increasingly comfortable with the job he has to do.
Argentina are still not so comfortable at the back, as Ahmed Musa proved with his magnificent Messi-like finish for Nigeria's equaliser a minute later. Yet, as is the theme of this tournament when Argentina play, Messi was on hand to ensure the ball was back sitting snugly in Enyeama's net just before halftime.
Again, there was a detached grace despite the greatness of the finish. Shortly after Messi had found his range with a 30-yard free-kick that forced a fine save from Enyeama, he hit the back of the net with a better one. It was actually not so much the back of the net but the side, such was the bend. The fact that Enyeama stood rigid on his line may have made it that bit easier, but when judging the flight of the ball, it's easy to say it was almost impossible to reach. Indeed this was as close to perfection as it comes from a dead-ball situation.
It was also something of a throwback. The delicious curled effort was reminiscent of one of those great free-kicks so prevalent through the 1980s and 1990s. It had an elegance far removed from the brutality of the modern knuckleball style, the type that Zico and, of course, Diego Maradona used to routinely dispatch.
That reference adds another dimension to Messi's double. Having become just the second player in this tournament to score in all three group games -- after Colombia's James Rodriguez -- Messi is now on four goals. That is just one less than Maradona hit in 1986 while leading his team single-handedly to the trophy.
Many might argue that one of Maradona's came with his hand, but after netting just once against Italy in the group stage, four goals came in the knockout rounds. To truly echo, and possibly surpass, Maradona, that is really what Messi will have to replicate. He will have to do it when it gets serious.
It is even more important because of the seriousness of Argentina's issues. Sabella has not yet struck the right balance between defence and attack; the rest of Argentina's forwards are not firing in the slightest. Indeed, all have separate issues. Gonzalo Higuain is wasteful and couldn't pick his spot; Sergio Aguero picked up yet another injury; Lavezzi has already been singled out for an apparent lack of respect toward his manager for squirting a water bottle as tactical instructions were being explained.
At the least, there's little explaining Messi's talent. If he is on form, so much else seems irrelevant. Few can touch his level. What's more, far from his form levelling out, the game against Nigeria suggested he is picking up pace and growing in confidence.
Nigeria manager Stephen Keshi wondered how high Messi could climb in Brazil, giving an oddly specific description of a player who defies labelling. "He is not from this planet. He is from Jupiter."
Messi may well make this World Cup his own and cement his legend in the process.