Messi key to Argentinean chances
When it comes to the men's Olympic soccer final, both of this year's teams, Argentina and Nigeria, can look to past successes for inspiration. The Albiceleste were victorious in 2004, while the 'Dream Team', as Nigerians call it, prevailed in 1996 at Argentina's expense. But when these teams take the field for Saturday's gold-medal match, it will be a more recent encounter - the 2005 Under-20 World Cup final - that will resonate more deeply.
On that occasion, a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina prevailed 2-1, with the Barcelona man earning and converting two penalties. For Nigeria manager Samson Siasia, who coached the losing side that day, the pain of that defeat hasn't faded over time.
'It's still fresh,' admitted Siasia. 'We actually gave that game up ourselves with the two penalties ... But this team has grown, and now we have more experience. I don't think we'll make the same mistakes twice.'
That said, there is a pervasive sense of déjà vu hanging over Saturday's final. Five Argentine players from that U-20 squad, including Messi and semi-final hero Sergio Aguero, will take the field, while eight of their Nigerian counterparts from 2005 will likely see action as well.
But Messi, as always, remains the focal point. Even when teams take the extraordinary step of man-marking him, as Brazil did in the semifinal, he can still wreak havoc. Case in point was Argentina's second goal last Tuesday. The Argentine wunderkind collected the ball on the left and proceeded to dribble across the top of the box. With Brazil's attention focused entirely on Messi, he slid a through ball to Ezequiel Garay on the right flank, and his low cross allowed a wide open Aguero to tap in from close range.
That Messi can find a way to beat teams, even under the most difficult of circumstances, gives Argentina an unmatched level of comfort, especially with players like Aguero and Angel di Maria converting opportunities.
'You will get a lot of chances when you have a player in the squad like Messi,' said Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano. 'He can be the difference. He is a match-winner. We need to use him like this. In defence, we know we will be alright because he will do something, always.'
Siasia know this as well, and rather than focus only on stopping Messi, the Nigerian manager will concentrate more of his defensive energies on containing midfield general Juan Roman Riquelme. Given Riquelme's vast experience, he is the man that brings peace to the game when the pace gets too hectic, and it will likely fall to Nigeria's Sani Kaita to make life difficult for the Argentine.
'We have to make sure we don't give them room to operate,' said Siasia. 'Messi is going to be a handful, we know that. But if you shut off the supply to Messi, it makes it more difficult for him.'
Complicating matters for Nigeria is their lack of a natural left-back, a situation created when Taye Taiwo was prevented from playing in the tournament by club side Olympique Marseille. Since arriving in Beijing, it's been a case of left-back-by-committee for Nigeria, with Chibuzor Okonkwo getting most of the playing time. Given Messi's penchant for setting up shop on Okonkwo's side, it seems a certainty that he'll probe that part of the field.
But Okonkwo can expect to get some help from centre-back Dele Adeleye. Not only has Adeleye been an absolute rock in defence, but more than any other Nigerian player, he has a score to settle with Messi. It was Adeleye who conceded both penalties back in 2005, yet he cuts a confident figure when the names of his adversaries are brought up.
'Messi, Aguero, Riquelme, I don't care. They are all footballers like me,' said Adeleye. 'They have a lot of strengths, but I have my own too. Whether I am playing against Messi or not, I have confidence in myself. There is no problem.'
For all the attention that Messi will receive on Saturday, there are some compelling matchups set to take place at the other end of the field as well. Nigeria has bags of pace and skill, and attackers Peter Odemwingie and Victor Nsofor Obinna, along with wide players Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi and Solomon Okoronkwo, will all be constant threats.
Argentina's full-backs Luciano Monzon and Pablo Zabaleta held up well against Brazil, despite the Auriverde's own players constantly pushing up into attack, and Argentina will need similar performances against the speed of Obasi and Okoronkwo.
Nigeria enters the game as underdogs, and if they're to collect their second soccer gold medal, they'll have to stay disciplined tactically. That was a problem during the group phase when the Dream Team continued to send numbers into attack, even when ahead. As a result, they made hard work of finishing off both Japan and the United States, and received a tongue-lashing from Siasia after the latter match. After taking Siasia's words to heart, the team showed more composure in the knock-out stages against Ivory Coast and Belgium.
'We have to play like [Siasia] told us, and not have everyone trying to do something special,' said Okoronkwo. 'We have to play simple and conserve energy.'
Such an approach will be paramount against a savvy Argentina side. In particular, the midfield shield of Mascherano and Fernando Gago remains the glue that holds the Albiceleste together. Mascherano, who was a member of the 2004 gold medal-winning side, will also be counted on to provide leadership, especially given the emotional capital Argentina spent in defeating bitter rivals Brazil in the semi-final.
'No matter how important this [semi-final was] for us, the final will be very, very difficult for us against Nigeria,' said Mascherano. 'We need to be calm.'
If Argentina succeeds in this area, then the sense of déjà vu will likely stick around for a while longer.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.