With Lionel Messi, Argentina are an imperfect team with a perfect player

Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain are out of sorts. The defence is suspect. But as the win over Nigeria proved, while Argentina have Messi, 'they have a chance', writes Richard Jolly.

Lionel Messi celebrates his second goal against Nigeria on Wednesday in Argentina's 3-2 victory at the 2014 World Cup. Edgard Garrido / Reuters / June 25, 2014
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Messidepencia, they call it. A dependency on Lionel Messi.

Argentina certainly are over-reliant on their captain but, frankly, there are worse problems to have.

Three of the giants of European football have already gone home. Cristiano Ronaldo, his rival for the title of the world’s best player, is likely to beat a swift retreat across the Atlantic, as well.

So sympathy should be in short supply for Argentina. Their fortunes rest on perhaps the greatest player of his generation; some would say the best of any. They are yet to excel as a team but have moved forward as group winners, with three wins from three, thanks largely to one man.

Four of their six goals have come from Messi’s left foot – and the others have been scored, rather inadvertently, by defenders, one of them a Bosnian who accidentally diverted the ball into his own net.

Sergio Aguero, who limped off, has been out of sorts. Gonzalo Higuain’s form has deteriorated since a fine display against Bosnia. Angel di Maria, at least, has excelled, but the trio have drawn a collective blank.

Messi has compensated in spectacular style. His first goal against Nigeria was his worst of the tournament, but that is relative: a 20-pass move, including a lovely ball from Javier Mascherano, led to Di Maria striking the post. Messi had the powers of anticipation to meet the rebound and the precision to angle his shot through a crowded penalty area.

By the by, it made him the first Argentine to score in three consecutive World Cup games since Omar Oreste Corbatta in 1958. Not even Diego Maradona, that perpetual comparison point for Messi, managed that.

His second took him level with a colleague at club level and a rival for the Golden Boot. Neymar has four goals this World Cup. So, too, does Messi after an immaculate free-kick, caressed and curled into the top corner. Vincent Enyeama, who had saved a rather more fierce free-kick a minute earlier, was left scrabbling across his goal, running when he should have dived.

Messi has a capacity to make goalkeepers look foolish and Enyeama, among the finest in this World Cup, can testify to that.

It made it rather inappropriate that Argentina’s winner bounced in off Rojo. It was the lone scrappy goal in a game of superb strikes.

Twice, Ahmed Musa assumed the role of Nigeria’s Ronaldo; whatever Messi could do, he set about emulating. Two excellent equalisers were testament to the CSKA Moscow winger’s talent and the transformation in Nigeria.

Their opening stalemate with Iran was almost unwatchable. Since then, Nigeria have displayed more attacking intent. It has been rewarded with a place in the last-16, giving Africa its first, and perhaps only, team in the knockout stages.

Considering Asia’s struggles, that is especially welcome; otherwise the global game will be reduced to three continents.

Playing with renewed ambition, Nigeria went toe to toe with Argentina, highlighting the vulnerabilities in their defence, especially against pace and intelligent movement.

Argentina are an imperfect team but while they have a perfect player, they have a chance.


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