A thrilling drama football fans around the world deserved
“We suffered a lot. There was a lot at stake. It was a huge relief, a relief for all of us. We didn’t think we would suffer this much.”
“We have watched every single France game. We follow every game. France is a very good team with skilled individual players. They have very fast players who can really make a difference. I know what we will have to do. It will be a very tough game, no doubt.”
- Lionel Messi.
A classic showdown of the 'G.O.A.T'
Diego Maradona crossed his arms over his chest and pointed to the sky. Lionel Messi needed just three touches to score but Argentina took 86 minutes to defeat Nigeria.
Marcos Rojo was the unlikely match-winner, an emphatic finish of which even his captain was proud off, ensured Jorge Sampaoli's disjointed, disorganised and, at times, desperate team are still alive at this World Cup.
The G.O.A.T opened his Fifa World Cup 2018 account in style. Ever Banega's sumptuous pass was chipped into his path. Messi cushioned the ball with his left thigh and without letting it bounce, prodded it into space with his left foot. Six steps later, his right foot pinged the ball past Francis Uzoho and inside the far post.
Fans breathe a sigh of relief
Jorge Valdano, who scored in the final when Argentina won the World Cup in 1986, told the Guardian how Messi's troubles were symptomatic of muddled thinking from top to bottom. "How are we supposed to know what to do with football if we don't even know what to do with Lionel Messi?" he said.
It was in this atmosphere of head-shaking and finger-pointing that Messi arrived at the Saint Petersburg Stadium, where fans wore masks with his face and shirts with the number 10 on their back.
When he trotted out to warm up, the stadium, still half-full, made a din worthy of a full house, as Maradona in the stands danced with an unsuspecting Nigeria supporter.
Perhaps Messi was relieved when the whistle blew, even if the early exchanges rather passed him by. An early run was halted by a clumsy tackle from John Obi Mikel before another ended with a under-hit cross.
The moment of magic
One moment was all it took and after Messi had fooled Kenneth Omeruo to dart clear and plant the ball into the net, he peeled away to the corner and fell on his knees.
For the next 20 minutes, he was purring. There was a deft flick behind his leg on the touchline to Banega. There was a defence-splitting pass for Gonzalo Higuain that Uzoho just managed to intercept. There was a free-kick that hit the bar. There was everything that you see on a perfect Messi showdown.
An ageing Argentina lost momentum in the middle
But Argentina lost momentum towards the end of the first half and when Victor Moses slid home a penalty after a frantic Mascherano pulled down Leon Balogun, Messi lost his way too. He drifted in from the right flank where he had earlier got so much joy and began collecting the ball from deep. One sideways pass was cut out and almost sprung a Nigeria counter-attack. Another weaving run was quickly surrounded by a sea of green shirts.
Argentina live to fight another day
At a point, it seemed the game was up but Rojo had the last word after Messi had the first.
As the referee blew his whistle, A fervent Maradona pulled a 'Christ the Redeemer' and a sea of Argentina fans shred tears of Joy.
They now face a knock-out encounter against France on Saturday, June 30 at the Kazan Arena.