Fri, Jun 27, 2014 - Page 20 News List

WORLD CUP: Messi inspires Argentina to win

PLAYER FROM JUPITER:Fans flooded across the border into Porto Alegre looking to get in on the party and Lionel Messi made sure it started early

Reuters, PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, second right, scores against Nigeria in their FIFA World Cup Group F match at the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Wednesday.

Photo: AFP

Lionel Messi scored twice to inspire Argentina to a thrilling 3-2 win over Nigeria on Wednesday which clinched top spot in World Cup Group F and sent home an army of Sky Blue supporters with smiles on their faces.

The few Nigeria fans in the crowd also left happy because their team advanced to the knockout phase thanks to Bosnia’s 3-1 win over Iran. Argentina finished on nine points, Nigeria on four, Bosnia three and Iran one.

The match at the Estadio Beira-Rio was as close as Argentina will come to a home game at the World Cup as an estimated 150,000 fans flooded across the border into this southern port city looking to get in on the party and Messi made sure it started early with a fabulous strike in the third minute.

While some questions continue to hang over Argentina’s status has one of the tournament favorites, Messi’s performance through the group phase of the competition has been nothing short of sensational, impressing fans, teammates, coaches and opponents.

“Messi is one heck of a player, you can’t take it away from him,” Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi told reporters after Nigeria became the first African team to reach the round-of-16 in the tournament. “There are good caliber players in the Argentina team, but Messi is from Jupiter.”

Although Argentina were guaranteed a place in the round-of-16, the twice champions still had plenty to play for on a drizzly day with top spot up for grabs and the soccer world waiting for the Sky Blues to flash their championship credentials after uninspiring wins over debutants Bosnia and unfancied Iran.

“It’s beautiful to see so many Argentine fans, I think we saw a very good Argentine team,” said Messi, after bringing his World Cup tally to four, putting him level with Brazil’s Neymar at the top of the list of leading scorers.

Nigeria entered the contest as the only team who had yet to concede a goal, but they had not faced a side with the attacking quality of Argentina, who immediately put the Super Eagles under pressure.

Boasting one of the most intimidating attacking formations in the business with Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria, Argentina had managed just three goals in two matches, but the “Fab Four” were on song against Nigeria, with a dominating attacking display led by Messi, who struck twice in the opening half and looked dangerous throughout.

Messi, who celebrated his 27th birthday on Tuesday, lashed in a rebound to give his side the lead after three minutes and scored again in first-half stoppage-time when he curled a sensational long-range free-kick into the corner of the net.

Argentina’s brilliance on the attack was offset by a shaky defense as Nigeria’s Ahmed Musa twice canceled out Messi goals with neat finishes in the fourth and 47th minutes.

The Argentines in the crowd were stunned when Musa scored just after halftime, but were quickly back on their feet celebrating three minutes later when a charging Marcos Rojo stabbed home a bouncing ball with his knee from close range.

“We started improving from the point of view of structure. We see an improvement as a whole,” Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella told reporters. “You can win not playing well and still have things to correct. I’m pleased about the nine points, but I must always improve.”

Argentina play Group E runners-up Switzerland in the round-of-16, while Nigeria face France.

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