On paper, any country that has Messi, Tevez, Mascherano, Milito, Veron and other assorted stars should wipe out just about any other team on the planet. And yet, regardless of the concentrated power, the Maradona-led team was anxiously awaiting the end of the game, and won only 1-0.
The first 15 minutes of the Ellis Park game placed the fear of Argentinian gods in every other team that dreams about winning the world title. The Lionel Messi-inspired team started lobbing rockets from the get-go and for a moment it felt as though the game would be a high-scoring affair. Heinze’s sixth-minute goal was an unstoppable shot that used the initial confusion that reigned in the Nigerian defence. The Nigerians must thank their goalkeeper that that would be the last goal of the game. Save after save, an inspired Enyeama denied Messi and the boys in a manner that sometimes defied belief and gravity.
The Argentinians are doubtless an incredibly strong team but they are not invincible. The Nigerian offence, as inefficient as it was this evening, exposed the potential holes that the better prepared and organised teams will be able to exploit. Argentina’s fullbacks, Heinze and Gutierrez are especially wobbly in their defensive duties and we will see how the South Koreans deal with them.
The Nigerians seemed strangely subdued throughout the game and it almost felt as though they are at peace with losing to the South Americans, believing they would find their way into the second round through games against South Korea and Greece. The way South Korea played today, that logic might be faulty.
Here are this reporter’s notes:
Argentina: Romero; Gutierrez, Demichelis, Samuel, Heinze; Mascherano, Veron, Di Maria; Messi, Higuain, Tevez.
Nigeria: Enyeama; Odiah, Shittu, Yobo, Taiwo; Kaita; Etuhu, Haruna; Ogbuke Obasi, Yakubu, Obinna.
Man of the match
- 3rd minute: Number 19 Ogbuke Obasi has a first chance for Nigeria. Argentine defence looks wobbly.
- 4th minute: Messi sets up a first chance for Higuain who misses the goal.
- 6th minute: Messi’s first shot was barely saved by Nigerian goalkeeper.
- 6th minute: Former Manchester United left fullback Gabriel Heinze slots a stunning header from another former Man United player, Sebastian Veron, with a corner-kick cross into the right upper corner of the Nigerian goal. Goalkeeper had no chance. An excellent effort, and Heinze’s seventh international goal.
Photo: Argentina’s Gabriel Heinze (L) heads to score against Nigeria during their 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 12, 2010. REUTERS/David Gray
- 10th minute: Yakubu has a promising cross deflected to corner. Argentine defence was caught flat-footed again. Nigeria will do well to utilise it.
- 12th minute: Argentine defence is Nigeria’s best chance to neutralise its incredible attack. This will probably be the first World Cup high-scoring game of 2010.
- 18th minute: Messi tries his trademark weave through the opponents’ defence and attempts to slot his shot into the far corner. Brings out the best from Enyeama.
- 21st minute: Tevez sets up Higuain, who again gets stopped by Enyeama, who was quick to close the angle.
The Argentine attack appears to be way too strong for the Nigerian defence in the first 20 minutes of the game. Every time they have the ball in their possession it is conceivable that they would endanger Nigeria’s goal. Messi, Tevez and Veron wreak havoc with their precise and taunting passes. Nigeria will have difficulties stopping them, while their offence is not utilising the Argentine defence’s light touch.
Photo: Nigeria’s goalkeeper Dele Aiyenugba makes the first of four saves from Lionel Mesi during a 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match against Argentina at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 12, 2010. REUTERS/David Gray
- 25th minute: Nigerian Kaita’s promising position (centrally at the edge of penalty box) doesn’t translate into a shot that would trouble Romero in any way, flying harmlessly past the left upright.
- 28th minute: Argentina’s leaking defence leaves Obasi alone in the left corner of the 16-metre box, but his effort was neither shot nor cross. Disappointing.
As the first half progresses, there are signs of the Argentine offence being slightly tamer, as the Nigerian defence finally learns how to lower their collective temperature. And yet:
- 37th minute: Messi tries his trick again, and for the third time today Enyeama produces another superhuman jump to save what most of the planet deemed a certain goal. Brilliant efforts from both players!
- 40th minute: The Argentine mid-field is positioned extremely offensively again, attacking Nigerians in their half and not letting them even cross the centre line. Terrific stuff from Veron and Tevez.
- 41st minute: Gutierrez gets this game’s first yellow card for the rough start on Obasi, no doubt energised by his mid-fielders’ zest.
- 43rd minute: Diego Maradona just can’t keep his mouth shut. He might be sanctioned before the game’s end.
- 44th minute: Messi is fouled at the left edge of Nigerian penalty box. Veron wastes a really promising free-kick opportunity.
The first half of the game was by far the most entertaining of any matches played so far, barring, perhaps, Bafana’s second half. The Argentines look wild and dangerous, while Nigeria still looks rather subdued. Yet, Argentina’s defence still potentially will offer more chances to the Nigerians. Hopefully they’ll be able to make something out of them.
- 49th minute: A brilliant one-two between Messi and Veron creates a chance for Messi that he misses by microns.
The Argentines start the second half where they left it, attacking, attacking and, once more, attacking. They look dangerous and leave the impression that every time the ball is close to the Nigerian box there’s a goal to be had. And yet, the Nigerian defence somehow still manages to repel them, but only just. Nigeria’s midfielders have so far thoroughly lost their battle against Mascherano, Tevez and Veron.
- 52nd minute: Obafemi Martins, a brilliant but somewhat erratic goal scorer replaces Victor Obinna. He is one of the players that can single-handedly decide the big matches, if he’s having a good day. Nigeria will now probably try dedicating more players to attack.
- 55th minute: Heinze’s impossibly long, brilliant pass defies the laws of physics but Di Maria just misses it.
Photo: Argentina’s Javier Mascherano (rear) battles for the ball with Nigeria’s Yakubu Aiyegbeni during the 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match at the Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 12, 2010. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen
- 60th minute: Messi is once more allowed to make his way from the right-hand side all the way to the left, only to have his shot deflected at the last moment. Nigeria lets him have way too much space.
- 61st minute: A Nigerian counterattack sees Kaita sending his shot skywards.
- 62nd minute: Nigeria finally sending crosses deeper into the Argentine penalty box. South Americans are still unperturbed, though.
- 65th minute: Argentina misses what should have been a knock-out counter-attack. Although it was four against two Nigerian defenders, Tevez chose the worst-positioned Messi, whose shot flew past the upright.
- 66th minute: Enyeama brilliantly saves Higuian’s shot from the right-hand side of penalty box. Sheer brilliance. Nigerians scramble a terrifically promising counter-attack.
- 71st minute: Best Nigerian moment of the match as Taiwo’s low-flying missile flashes past the upright, after which he collapses in pain.
- 73rd minute: Veron replaced by Liverpool’s Maxi Rodriguez. Taiwo leaves the field permanently, after his injury was deemed serious enough.
- The second half is much tamer affair than the first. The Argentines are biding their time, waiting for the Nigerians to throw everything forward.
- 78th minute: Martins connects well, produces strong shot, but straight into Romero, who does the clever thing and boxes the ball out of harm.
- 79th minute: Diego Milito, the hero of Inter’s European Champions’ League victory, replaces Higuain. Argentina’s bench is deep and powerful.
- 81st minute: After combining with Milito, Messi has a sitter of a chance, alone in front of Enyeama, but the goalkeeper denies him again. The Nigerians will have to build him a monument, should he continue like this.
- 82nd minute: Nigeria misses their best chance of the game as Uche blows the ball above crossbar after the counter-attack. Maradona’s sigh of relief could be heard over the drone of vuvuzelas.
- 85th minute: Maradona brings on Burdiso for Di Maria, in effort to strengthen the defence.
- 86th minute: The Argentines claim Maxi Rodriguez was brought down in the penalty box, but the referee just waves the game on.
- 90th minute: Messi once more in front of the keeper, this time has the ball snatched out of his control.
- 94th minute: The end, Maradona breathes again.
Report by Branko Brkic
Main photo: Argentina’s coach Diego Maradona celebrates his team’s goal against Nigeria during the 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 12, 2010. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh