Argentina got their 2010 World Cup campaign off to a winning start and silenced some of their doubters with a dominant performance against Nigeria in Johannesburg.
While not quite the sum of their supremely talented parts, Diego Maradona’s side were able to capitalise on the space fatally afforded them by their opponents to register a well-deserved victory, secured through a headed goal from Gabriel Heinze.
Nigeria had their chances, primarily down the left where makeshift Argentine right-back Jonas Gutierrez was often exposed, but forward Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi was wasteful.
A vociferous Ellis Park crowd showed their appreciation for the entertainment on show, particularly that provided by Argentine forward Lionel Messi, who was the standout performer, creating opportunities for others and on a number of occasions drawing superb saves from impressive Super Eagles keeper Vincent Enyeama.
South Korea’s comfortable 2-0 win over Greece in Group B’s other fixture on Saturday means the winner of next Thursday’s match between them and Argentina will be in pole position to qualify for the last 16.
Such an outcome would represent an extremely satisfying stride forward for an Argentina side who have polarised opinion in the build up to this tournament between those who identify them as challengers because of the sheer abundance of talent in their ranks and those who hark back to a turbulent qualifying campaign and the perceived flaws in coach Maradona as reasons to write them off.
While Maradona remained a lively source of fascination on the touchlines, his heir apparent, and the man predicted by many to stamp his authority on this World Cup as his iconic coach did in Mexico in 1986, Barcelona’s Fifa World Player of the Year, Messi, was the magnetic focal point on the pitch.
Operating in a front three alongside Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez of Manchester City – a trio that has scored 105 club goals between them this season – Messi produced a performance befitting of his billing.
Twice in the first 20 minutes Messi ran at the Nigeria defence and provided scoring opportunities for Higuain, but the first the Real Madrid striker put past the near post from three yards out and then saw his angled drive from further out blocked by Enyeama.
Sandwiched between these two chances Argentina took the lead. Tevez’s superb curling shot was tipped over by Enyeama for a corner, from which Juan Sebastian Veron provided the cross for Heinze to dive in unmarked and head home.
The South Americans remained the more likely to score, but they were either wasteful or unable to beat Enyeama, who kept his side as a credible threat in the match with further impressive saves from Higuain and Messi.
Nigeria’s preparations for this tournament have been far from ideal, with Swede Lars Lagerback effectively given only three weeks to prepare his squad for the tournament after replacing Shaibu Amodu as coach and star midfielder John Mikel Obi ruled out with a knee injury but they remained committed to the cause throughout.
Had Obasi been better able to capitalise on the poor positional play of Gutierrez with greater accuracy in his shooting in the first half, Taye Taiwo’s toe-poke shot been a foot to the left, or had substitute Kala Uche shown greater composure when unmarked to keep his shot under the bar late on the Africans could have salvaged what would have been an undeserved draw.
There was still time in the final few minutes for Messi to slightly blot his copybook by allowing Enyeama to save from six yards when he should have scored but it is harsh to take away from what was a superb display from the forward and an encouraging victory for Maradona’s men.