Argentina and Nigeria wrap up Group F with more goals
Still doubts over Lionel Messi’s supporting cast as Sabella’s side leak lose way without him
This is a great World Cup and it has a great soundtrack. To the tune of Bad Moon Rising, Nigeria and Argentina scored five more goals when they did not really need to score any. There were two each for Ahmed Musa and for Lionel Messi, who became the joint top scorer alongside Neymar. Both teams progressed and the tournament is better for that. They could have played out a draw, ambled their way to a flat and mutually beneficial conclusion; instead, there were two goals after just three minutes. Three more followed.
There was only one disappointment: that Alejandro Sabella chose to replace Messi with half an hour remaining. It made sense when there are bigger moments ahead but some of the thrill had gone. It was already 3-2 and there would be no more goals. Argentina’s fans packed this stadium and the streets outside. Over one hundred thousand of them were in Porto Alegre. They sang the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic with their own lyrics. “You’ll see Messi bring the cup back to us,” it runs.
Only at the end did the Brazilians in this area respond with a chant of “pentachampion!” and their neighbours are starting to believe that maybe Messi really can bring the cup back. The doubts will still surround those who are, in Angel Di María’s words, there to “support” him. Defensively, they were not convincing and Sergio Agüero departed early, although Ezequiel Lavezzi played well in his absence.
Sabella had admitted that his team was, naturally enough, dependent on Messi. Two wonderful goals secured two victories after poor performances. On Tuesday, Messi turned 27. When he came out to warm up here, Argentina’s supporters sang Happy Birthday To You. When he was replaced, they chanted his name like a mantra, in praise. Once again, he had led them. He now has 24 goals in his last 23 games for his country.
Even Vincent Enyeama, the goalkeeper who had denied Messi time and again in South Africa four years ago, could not stop him – and yet he stopped a lot here, even as luck appeared to have deserted him from the very start.
Only two minutes had gone when Argentina took the lead. Mascherano’s clever pass found Ángel Di María, whose shot, hard and low towards the near post, was saved by Enyeama. But suddenly, in a fortunate flash, the ball was in the net. The ball came off the keeper’s hands, off the post, off the keeper’s head, off the post again, and out … to where Messi was racing forward to smash it back in again.
If Nigeria were shocked, qualification for the next round momentarily apparently vulnerable, they reacted so quickly that there was barely time for the message to reach Iran. Michael Babatunde sent Ahmed Musa away on the left to cut inside and score a wonderful equaliser, curling the ball beyond Sergio Romero and into the far corner. One hundred meters and one minute and twenty seconds separated the two.
There had been no time to detect a pattern yet and it was as if the game restarted, just at 1-1 instead of 0-0. When it did, there were signs of a better Argentina. Di María’s shot was pushed away by Enyeama, then neatly found a little space to play in Higuaín to step to the keeper’s right and hit the side-netting. Enyeama’s save count was rising; for his team, containment was sufficient and news of Bosnia’s goal on 23 minutes made their position still safer and a second followed around the hour. Even if Nigeria were defeated, Iran would need to score twice for them to be eliminated.
They would be grateful for that. Peter Odemwingie’s shot then flew over the bar and, at the other end, Di María’s effort was turned away. Next Nigeria’s goalkeeper flew to push one Messi free-kick away from the top corner but when Messi got the chance to do it again from a very similar position two minutes later, he was left with no chance. It was softer this time, curling away into the corner. Enyeama, positioned in the centre of his goal, ran towards the ball but stopped on route. It was already in the net. With that, Messi became the tournament’s joint-top scorer on four. The only other goal Argentina had scored had been scored for them by Bosnia’s Sead Kolasinc.
Not for long. Musa dashed through early in the second half to make it 2-2, a moment’s pause sufficient for him to send Romero to the left while his shot went to the right. And then Argentina were back in the lead again. This time, Messi was not involved. Enyeama saved Di María’s shot and from the corner, Garay leapt. The ball dropped just beyond his head, on to the thigh of Marcos Rojo and into the net.
Still the chances came. Enyeama saved from Di María and from Ezequiel Lavezzi, the latter after a clever free-kick, then caught Mascherano’s long-range effort. Garay headed over. And at the other end Efe Ambrose struck a shot into the side-netting. Before that, Musa had seen one shot go over and another get blocked by Pablo Zabaleta as he sought a hat-trick. He, like Messi, would have to settle for two. And as the final minutes ticked away, a bad moon rose once more.