An early Gabriel Heinze header meant Argentina kept their unbeaten record intact against a battling Nigeria and made a winning start to their World Cup campaign. All eyes were on Maradona as he returned to the world stage, albeit as a coach, against the Nigerians – the same opposition in his last game at the 1994 World Cup.
The million-dollar question at the start of the game was whether this Argentine team was capable of winning it all or whether they would see their challenge fizzle out under the burden of expectations. The 1-0 scoreline does not do justice to Argentina’s dominance. Argentina dominated possession for most of the time and looked threatening as long as they had the ball, but every time they lost possession the slow legs of their aging defense were exposed.
La Albiceleste’s got the game underway with a couple of build-ups through the center of the field with Messi being the obvious fulcrum, only for Higuain missing two open chances. Messi had a few attempts at goal himself, and Nigeria have their goal keeper Enyeama to thank for an astounding display of custodianship. However, it was a save from the Super Eagles’ keeper that lead to the first Argentine corner. An unmarked Heinze quickly took advantage of a defensive lap and scored what turned out to be the winning goal off a diving header.
Heinze – putting his head to good use
Argentina continued dominating the possession and attacked their opponents in waves, only to fluff chances of note with incredible regularity. Poor passing from both teams and loss of possession remained the order of the day. Nigeria’s goalkeeper had an exceptional game, keeping Argentina’s little magician at bay.
Messi would have conjured up a hat-trick had it not been for the brilliance of Enyeama, who continued to soldier on in his nation’s cause despite picking up a minor injury in the 22nd minute. After a third of the game, Nigeria started counter attacking; a good attacking move by Obasi and a rough challenge by Gutierrez on him led to the first card of the game by referee Wolfgang Stark who till then was content to let the game flow at its own pace.
As half time approached, Messi was brought down just outside the box but Veron fluffed the ensuing free-kick well over the bar. For Nigeria, Obasi and Yakubu had a number of good chances in the first half but they failed to capitalize with a free Yakubu going pretty close. The second half started with Nigeria displaying a lot more confidence in offense, applying pressure on the aging Argentine defense, but once again, their woeful finishing continued to haunt them.
Even an early substitution didn’t help Nigeria’s cause; Taiwo managed a number of good long range efforts forcing Romero to make a few good saves in the second half but that was as good as it got for him. As the second half progressed, Messi uncharacteristically missed a truckload of chances.
The Nigerian counter-attacking strategy began to pay dividends as the Eagles began to assert themselves with Martins releasing Kaita to take a wild shot at goal. Taiwo looked threatening every time he took either, a long range shot or a set-piece delivery but often there was none of his compatriots positioned forward to take advantage.
Veron was substituted in the 74th minute and Maxi Rodriguez, his replacement, provided more width to the team. While Haruna received a yellow card for a dirty challenge on Messi, Uche came in for the injured Taiwo and had an immediate impact on the game.
Diego Milito replaced the ineffective Higuain in the 79th minute, providing an added dimension on both the wings. There were two chances towards the end for Nigeria where an open goal was just begging to be scored into, but Uche and Yakubu made nothing of them. The former, especially, could have easily put Nigeria level but he failed to keep down his shot from an awkward height.
Enyeama redeemed himself despite having had his hands full!
The HardTackle’s Player of the Match:
Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria)
One doesn’t win a straight head-to-head duel with the best player on the planet. Messi has left many goalkeepers clueless and baffled, but Enyeama managed to get the better of him. Through brilliant reactions and full stretched saves, he somehow kept Messi at bay all game long.
TheHardTackle’s Referee Report Card:
Wolfgang Stark – Grade: B+
The German referee showed a lot of restraint in showing cards, unless the players really deserved it. He ensured the game progressed in entertaining fashion. The fourth official also deserve praise for their handling of a visibly hyperactive Maradona on the touchline.
ARGENTINA 1-0 NIGERIA
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Argentina Line-Up: Sergio Romero, Gabriel Heinze, Walter Samuel, Martin Demichelis, Juan Veron ( Maxi Rodriguez), Javier Mascherano, Jonas Gutierrez, Angel Di Maria ( Nicolas Burdisso 74’), Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain (Diego Milito 79′)Lionel Messi
Manager: Diego Armando Maradona
Caution: Jonas Gutierrez
Scorers: Gabriel Heinze
Nigeria Line-Up: Vincent Enyeama, Taye Taiwo ( Kalu Uche 75’) , Joseph Yobo, Danny Shittu, Chidi Odiah, Sani Kaita, Dickson Etuhu, Victor Obinna( Obafemi Martins 52’), Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Chinedu Obasi (Odemwingie 59’), Lukman Haruna
Manager: Lars Lagerback
Caution: Lukman Haruna