If this was a Lionel Messi worn out by the travails of a long season, then heaven help the other 31 teams in this tournament when he gets into his stride. Messi, wearing the No. 10 shirt of Diego Maradona, was the inspirator and conductor for an Argentina side that got their World Cup off to a successful start thanks to Gabriel Heinze's sixth-minute header.
Messi didn't score, true, but that was largely down to the brilliance of Nigeria's goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, who stopped almost everything Argentina threw at him in what was the best game of South Africa 2010 so far.
Argentina's manager Diego Maradona set his stall out from the off by opting for a front three of Carlos Tevez, Gonazalo Higuaín and Messi, with Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastián Verón sitting and Newcastle winger Jonás Gutiérrez as an unlikely right-back. As a statement of intent, it couldn't have been clearer: Argentina were going to attack, and damn the consequences.
Such a high-wire approach nearly cost them inside three minutes as Gutierrez, sucked in towards his centre halves, let a long cross fly over his head to Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi before pawing unconvincingly as the Nigerian winger jinked past him and shot past the far post.
Argentina's response was immediate. Messi danced past three players with a drop of the shoulder and a series of subtle feints before crossing to Higuaín who, from three yards out, side-footed wide. Then, a minute later, Tevez found Messi whose 20-yard shot was tipped over by Enyeama.
The pressure was growing and from Verón's resulting corner, Gabriel Heinze – criminally unmarked by the penalty spot – headed home via the faintest of touches off Chidi Odiah's head. Six minutes in, Argentina were 1-0 up and flying.
After the frenetic start, the game calmed, but the pattern remained the same, Argentina pressing and continuing to have the better chances, Nigeria dangerous on the break. Indeed by half-time Maradona's men could have been three up but for the brilliance of Enyeama. First he saved from Higuaín one-on-one with his knees. Then, towards the end of the first half Messi took a free-kick on the left touchline, exchanged a 25-yard one-two with Angel Di Maria before, with minimal backlift, clipping a curling shot towards the top corner that Enyeama somehow finger-tipped around the post.
The second half was just as open, with Messi again providing the thrust and twice nearly scoring — first at the start of the half when he exchanged a one-two with Verón, scampered into the box but guided his flick just wide; then late on when the impressive Enyeama saved another one-on-on chance. Nigeria, frustrated at being unable to stop Messi, resorted to fouling him — on the touchline Maradona repeatedly demanded yellow cards for fouls against his No10 but only Lukman Haruna went into the book for a late challenge.
Still, you never completely trusted Argentina's defence, and Nigeria increasingly came into the game — especially after Peter Odemwingie replaced Obasi on the hour. Mostly the Nigerian's chances were restricted to long distance: but it was worrying for Argentina that Taye Taiwo was allowed to encroach into their penalty box unhindered before his skidding shot went just wide of the post, that Yakabu's 25-yard piledriver was fisted unconvincingly by Sergio Romero and — not long before the end — the substitute Kalu Uche was able to exchange passes with Yakubu Aiyegbeni before looping his shot over from 12 yards. But this was Argentina and Messi's day, and deservedly so.
© Guardian News and Media 2010